Curve pitcher tosses one-hitter in playoff opener

Mirror photo by Cory Giger The Curve’s Mitch Keller signs autographs for fans following his pitching gem in Bowie, Md., on Thursday.

BOWIE, Md. — In baseball terms, it’s called a Maddux. In Curve terms, Mitch Keller’s masterpiece Thursday night gets the label of best pitching performance in franchise history.

Keller, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect, fired a one-hit shutout and became the first Curve pitcher ever to face the minimum of 27 batters over nine innings. He did so against the Eastern League’s top offense, a Bowie club that led the league in runs and batted a whopping .283 as a team for the season.

Oh, and Keller did all that on just 90 pitches, hence the Maddux label, named after Greg Maddux and reserved for throwing a highly efficient shutout under 100 pitches.

“It feels amazing,” Keller said.

The Curve offense did just enough and beat Bowie, 2-0, to capture Game 1 of the Western Division playoff series at Prince George’s Stadium. Altoona scored single runs in the fifth and seventh innings, and Keller did the rest.

“It’s one of the better pitching performances I’ve seen,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said.

Keller threw only the second one-hit shutout over nine innings in Curve history. The other was by Adrian Sampson at home against Bowie in 2014, when he lost a no-hitter in the ninth.

Until Thursday, that Sampson outing was the best ever by an Altoona pitcher. What made Keller’s better is that it came on the road, in the playoffs and against a terrific offensive team that dominated the Curve this season, going 14-5.

Keller, the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2014, let out a small grin when asked about throwing a Maddux and if he expected that kind of outing.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I was just going out and throwing my best stuff, just trying to get as deep in the game as I could, and it ended up being the whole nine.”

Keller actually battled his fastball command a bit early and walked the leadoff man in the second inning. That runner was erased by a double play, one of three turned by the Curve, which allowed Keller to face the minimum.

The 21-year-old right-hander finished with four strikeouts and two walks, and Baysox hitters swung at a lot of pitches early in the count all night.

Bowie’s lone hit was a leadoff single by Cedric Mullins in the fourth. He was off and running trying to steal when the next batter, Ryan Mountcastle, lined out sharply to left. Mullins tried hustling back to first, but a terrific throw from left fielder Elvis Escobar gunned him down easily for the double play.

Keller didn’t feel all that efficient with his pitches early.

“The first two innings I didn’t really,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to battle through this one. After I let a few (fastballs) rip there in the second inning, I kind of found it. And I felt really good from there.”

The Curve let a couple of early scoring chances slip by when they couldn’t get runners home from third with less than two outs in the first and second innings. They also left the bases loaded in the second.

Altoona finally broke through in the fifth. Cole Tucker doubled with one out, and Jordan George delivered a two-out RBI single to left for a 1-0 lead against Bowie starter David Hess, who pitched well in a loss.

“Everyone was a little more hyped up than usual going into the playoffs,” George said. “(The first run) just gave us a little breathing room and got our shoulders kind of relaxed, and we just got back to what we usually do.”

The Curve added a big insurance run in the seventh, with Casey Hughston drawing a one-out walk and coming home on a single to left by Mitchell Tolman. Both of those players just joined the Curve from high-A Bradenton six days ago.

Tolman and Tucker finished with three hits apiece.

Keller was cruising, at just 81 pitches through eight innings. He opened the ninth with a four-pitch walk to Steve Wilkerson, however, leading catcher Jin-De Jhang to head out to the mound for a quick visit.

“I just said, ‘Slow down a little bit’ and ‘let’s go, you’ve got it. Just do it,'” Jhang said.

Ryan got reliever Luis Heredia up in the bullpen just in case after that leadoff walk in the ninth. But Keller regrouped and jumped out to a 1-2 count on Adrian Marin, who then bounced into a 5-4-3 double play.

“Unbelievable plays behind me that allowed me to go that far,” Keller said of his defense. “If we don’t make those plays, I’m probably out of there in the sixth or so because of pitch count. Those guys turned two and made some great plays out in the outfield.”

Keller finished the night by getting Erick Salcedo to line out to left, capping off one of the most memorable individual performances ever by a Curve player.

“In complete control of the game,” Ryan said of the pitcher. “He had confidence in all three pitches. Just looks like a seasoned veteran out there and not a (21-year-old). Just a slow heartbeat, and nothing seems to get to him. Even when he has a bad inning, that’s exactly the way he looks. It’s impressive.”

Keller’s fastball topped out at 98 mph, but he didn’t just throw hard, he pitched a smart game.

“He was keeping the ball down, getting ahead in the count, mixing his breaking ball in perfectly,” Ryan said. “Did a really good job not doubling up on his pitches, throwing back-to-back same pitch to a great-hitting club. It’s hurt us in the past when we have done that. He didn’t get into a pattern.”

Keller has never thrown more than seven innings in a regular-season game during his career. He did, however, throw eight shutout innings in a playoff game last year for Bradenton, only to top that Thursday.

“I definitely expect him to do great things,” said George, who was teammates with Keller most of the season at Bradenton. “He’s an unbelievable talent, unbelievable guy. I wouldn’t say I was shocked by the performance tonight.”

Game recap

Key player: RHP Mitch Keller tossed a one-hit shutout, just the second in Curve history.

Key play: RBI singles by DH Jordan George in the fifth and 2B Mitchell Tolman in the seventh accounted for Altoona’s runs.

Key stat: Keller is the first Curve pitcher in the franchise’s 19 years to face the minimum 27 batters in a nine-inning game.

How they scored

Top 5th: Tucker doubled, scored on George single (1-0).

Top 7th: Hughston walked, scored on Tolman single (2-0).