Curve prospect shines in the spotlight

By Cory Giger

Pirates prized pitching prospect Mitch Keller obviously has the “electric stuff” that baseball folks love to talk about, but it was something else he showed during his Curve home debut that stood out even more.

“His presence out there, it’s like he’s been here all year,” manager Michael Ryan said. “It’s fun to watch.”

And what exactly does presence mean?

“Looking like you belong,” Ryan replied. “Confident, in control of the game, nothing fazes him, just steady.”

In that regard, think Jameson Taillon. That’s what came to mind watching Keller pitch in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against Trenton. He struck out nine, didn’t walk a batter and allowed two runs on five hits in six innings, topping out at 98 mph and showing a dandy curveball.

Appropriately enough, on “Elvis night” at the ballpark, the Curve won the first game on a walk-off hit by Elvis Escobar in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 victory. Trenton took the second game, 4-0, before 7,280 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Keller, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect, made his Double-A debut last Sunday at Trenton, giving up two runs on five hits in six innings. Though the 23-year-old had those same numbers Saturday night, he was much more dominant.

Keller took a shutout and 2-0 lead into the sixth inning and showed great control. He ran into trouble in the sixth, though, and Trenton scored a pair to tie the game.

Jeff Hendrix opened the Thunder sixth with a single before Keller retired the next two batters. Mike Ford then ripped a ground-rule double, and Keller couldn’t escape the jam as Ryan McBroom hit a two-run single to right.

Keller ended his night with another strikeout to end the sixth.

“I kind of blew the lead there, but we got the walk-off, so that was awesome,” he said.

The walk-off came in large part thanks to a leadoff triple in the seventh by the Curve’s Wyatt Mathisen. Trenton intentionally walked the next two batters to lead the bases, then Escobar singled to right for the game winner.

Luis Heredia (3-3) won in relief for Altoona, while Thunder starter Dillon Tate (0-1) took the loss.

Keller, a second-round draft pick in 2014, said the good mound presence is something he has worked on during his pro career.

“Having good mound presence is huge,” he said. “If you don’t have good mound presence, you’re already a step behind hitters, they already see you as a candidate to hit off of. Good mound presence is kind of intimidating, so I feel like having that is a huge step.”

Asked if he has always had good presence and poise on the mound, Keller said, “No, actually, it’s something I’ve had to work on a lot.

“Just controlling my emotions has been a huge thing for me since being in pro ball,” he continued. “It’s been one thing for me to be able to handle situations like that when stuff’s not going your way. I’d get flustered, and it would carry on to the next batter, and it would kind of downward spiral from there.”

If that sounds familiar, Pirates ace Gerrit Cole has had trouble with that very issue throughout his career.

Keller went 6-3 with a 3.38 ERA in 15 starts for high-A Bradenton before being promoted to the Curve. He will get a few more starts, including the playoffs if Altoona makes it, and said his goal is to continue what he was doing pounding the strike zone in Bradenton.

Keller is now a lot closer to Pittsburgh, and he’ll start next season with the Curve, as well.

“I think it just makes the game more fun now,” he said of getting to Double-A. “It was fun down there (in Florida), but it’s just a new level and it’s a blast being this close.”

The Curve managed only four hits in getting shut out in game two. Austin Coley (4-4) gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings for the loss, while James Reeves (1-0) won in relief for Trenton.

SUBHD: Doubleheader recap

Key players: RHP Mitch Keller struck out nine in six innings in game one for Altoona, and 2B Abiatal Avelino was 2-for-3 with a homer for Trenton in game two.

Key plays: CF Elvis Escobar’s RBI single gave Altoona a walk-off win in the opener, and Abiatal’s two-run homer helped the Thunder take game two.

Key stat: The Curve are tied with Bowie for first place in the Western Division.

SUBHD: How they scored

First game

Bottom 1st: Tucker tripled, scored on Feliz fielder’s choice (1-0); Suiter single scored Feliz (2-0).

Top 6th: Hendrix singled, Ford doubled (replaced by pinch-runner Avelino), both scored on McBroom single (2-2).

Bottom 7th: Mathisen tripled, scored on Escobar single (3-2).

Second game

Top 3rd: Diaz singled, scored on Estrada single (0-1); Avelino singled, scored on Ford single (0-2).

Top 4th: Diaz doubled, scored on Avelino two-run homer (0-4).