Curve’s Howard remains on tear

The best hitter in all of Double-A baseball since June 1, with a stellar .365 average, is none other than Curve first baseman Justin Howard.

That’s pretty remarkable given that Howard barely played at all prior to June, was shuffled off and on the roster three times and hit just .209 through May.

Teammate Alex Dickerson has gotten most of the notoriety for his impressive surge since June 1 – .344 average, 12 homers, 47 RBIs – but Howard has hit 21 points higher in that span.

Howard has been the Curve’s unsung hero, but he was just plain and simply the hero Saturday night. He ripped a tie-breaking solo homer in the eighth inning to give Altoona a 5-4 win over Harrisburg before 6,895 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“It’s awesome,” Howard said of his emotions after hitting the homer. “You can’t really describe the feeling, but when you’re rounding the bases you just try to take it in. You hear the fans yelling and stuff, so it’s really exciting.”

Howard’s story is one of the best of this Curve season as he remained patient while not playing and cashed in when he finally did get the chance. First baseman Matt Curry went down with a hand injury in early May, and after Andrew Lambo was promoted to Triple-A in early June, Howard was given an opportunity to play first base and ran with it.

“If it’s one guy who’s going to give you a professional approach day in and day out, it’s going to be Howard,” Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. “Last year he was doing the same thing in the Florida State League. He was patient, and now he has the opportunity to play.

“When he gets the opportunity to get four at-bats every night, he will put up numbers for you because he knows how to hit, he understands how they’re going to attack him. His barrel stays in the strike zone for a long time, and when that happens you’re going to have some success.”

Some success, perhaps, but a .365 average in 56 games over more than two months is staggering for any player, let alone someone who struggled just staying on the roster earlier this year.

“It’s just continuing to get the reps in practice knowing that you’re going to get your shot and staying in it mentally,” Howard said. “It’s really tough when you’re not getting your opportunities and you’re kind of bouncing on and off the roster. You’ve just got to find it in yourself to stay mentally confident and mentally ready.”

It helped knowing his manager maintained confidence in him.

“He tells you, ‘Hey, stay positive, you’re going to get a shot,'” Howard said of Garcia. “In baseball, something’s going to happen to where somebody has to step up, and thankfully it’s been me this year. I got that opportunity to get at-bats and hit well, and he kept the confidence in me to keep plugging me in there.”

Howard has rewarded Garcia for the vote of confidence and exceeded all possible expectations, and Saturday he got to enjoy the thrill of hitting a big go-ahead home run.

“He’s doing more than a great job for us,” Garcia said.

Howard isn’t a prototypical power-hitting first baseman, so the 25-year-old knows he will have to keep playing well above expectations to keep getting opportunities.

“I’m going to have to fight for everything I get, so I can’t take any days off out here, and I’m not going to take anything for granted,” he said. “I’m going to stay humble and keep working hard.”

Jarek Cunningham had a key two-run single in the third inning to give the Curve a 4-3 lead, but Harrisburg tied it in the seventh before Howard homered an inning later.

Jason Townsend (4-3) won in relief for the Curve, while Ryan Perry (1-5) took the loss for Harrisburg.

There were no incidents during the game spilling over from any bad blood between the teams that might have been caused by Friday night’s bench-clearing brawl.

Game recap

Key player: Curve 2B Jarek Cunningham went 2-for-4 with a two-run single.

Key play: 1B Justin Howard hit a tie-breaking, game-winning home run in the eighth inning.

Key stat: Howard leads Double-A baseball with a .365 batting average since June 1.

How they scored

Bottom 1st: Hanson walked, scored on Polanco double (1-0); Rojas single scored Polanco (2-0).

Top 2nd: Hague walked, scored on Martinson triple (2-1); Swynenberg sacrifice fly scored Martinson (2-2).

Top 3rd: Bloxom walked, scored on Martinson sacrifice fly (2-3).

Bottom 3rd: Hanson singled, Polanco walked, both scored on Cunningham single (4-3).

Top 7th: Bloxom singled, scored on Rivero double (4-4).

Bottom 8th: Howard solo homer (5-4).