Pitching department does its job

By Cory Giger

cgiger@altoonamirror.com

Mitch Keller’s first start of the season turned out to be everything he could have hoped for, as the Pirates’ top pitching prospect was superb and showed he’s made good progress with one key part of his pitching arsenal.

Keller tossed six shutout innings, allowed only two hits, struck out eight and walked two in helping the Curve beat Akron, 4-0, on a chilly Sunday afternoon before 2,784 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“I feel really good about it,” Keller, who just turned 22 on Wednesday, said of his outing. “Spring training, you can have all the confidence in the world, but those games ultimately don’t count or anything like that. So getting the first one, getting the first win and doing well, it means a lot just getting your confidence up and rolling for the rest of the season.”

Akron ran out an interesting lineup, starting eight left-handed hitters against Keller, a right-hander. That gave Keller a perfect opportunity to put more emphasis on his changeup, a pitch he’s been working on and that looked very impressive Sunday.

“I’m obviously still working on it, but I’m at that point now where I’m getting a lot more confident with it and I can throw it in any count that I want,” Keller said. “I threw a couple 3-1 counts, early count, 1-1, any time. So I felt really comfortable with it today.”

Keller’s fastball hits the upper 90s, and he has an outstanding curveball. If his changeup becomes the kind of weapon that he and the Pirates believe it can be, then the sky’s the limit for the young pitcher.

“Really good outing for him, especially the first one of the year,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “I was extremely impressed with the changeup, the secondary pitches today. He kept them off balance. It’s not like he’s just going to blow gas. For him to be able to mix in his secondaries at the right time, it was a good outing.

“I would say 15 percent of his pitches today were changeups,” Ryan noted.

That’s a pretty big number, and given that Keller threw 77 pitches total, that means about 11 or 12 were changeups.

“The later you go into a game, I would say 10-12 percent maybe (is a good number),” Ryan said. “Some guys, if it’s their out pitch, you’ll see it more in the 15-20 range. But anything in between there shows you have confidence in that pitch because you’re throwing it that often.”

Keller (1-0) knew Akron would start a lot of left-handed hitters since it had been doing so much of the series.

“I knew it was going to be a big day for me to attack with fastball in and then go soft away with the changeup, and it worked out,” he said.

As for the specifics of the changeup, Keller said, “I’m getting really good depth on it, which is missing barrels, so that’s what I’m looking at right now. I’m not really focused on (velocity). I think it’s 88-90 range.”

The Curve’s catcher Sunday, Christian Kelley, also caught Keller last year at high-A Bradenton, so he knows better than just about anyone how much progress the pitcher has made.

“Definitely offspeed development,” Kelley said. “He’s able to throw all three pitches for strikes — fastball, curveball, changeup. Hitters can’t really sit on that 95 heater anymore. If he consistently gets that changeup over the plate and curveball over the plate, he’s a tough guy to hit.

Speaking of the changeup, Kelley said, “I’d say last year, it’s not that he didn’t have the confidence, it’s just I think he changed up grip a little bit, and it’s helping him have more feel for it. … It’s a big weapon for him right now.

“It’s dropping off,” Kelley added. “So to a hitter, if they’re looking fastball and it comes out of his hand, it drops. It looks like the bottom falls out of it, and they swing right over the top of it.”

Keller said one of his goals this season was to hone his secondary pitches, and he’s off to a good start.

Kelley was asked to describe what he thinks the pitcher will look like later in the season.

“The next four or five months it’s going to be warmer, so he’s going to be bringing that fastball up a lot higher,” the catcher said. “With that, the changeup and everything also will be a little harder, but it will be more sharp, too. So it’s only going to get better.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Mitch Keller allowed just two hits and struck out eight over six shutout innings for the Curve.?Key play: CF Pablo Reyes had the big hit of the day, a two-run double in the second to give Keller an early lead.

Key stat: The Curve went 3-1 in their season-opening series and are tied for first place in the Western Division with Erie.

SUBHD: How they scored

Bottom 2nd: Reynolds doubled, Hayes walked, both scored on Reyes double (2-0).

Bottom 5th: Tucker singled, scored on Craig two-run homer (4-0).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Claysburg-Kimmel product RHP Kaleb Fleck will be in town with Harrisburg for a series starting tonight against the Curve. The 29-year-old Fleck will be just the second player from Blair County to play in Altoona against the Curve, with the other being RHP Ron Blazier, who was with Bowie in 1999. Bedford County’s Keith Williams played for the Curve in 2000.

SAFE AT FIRST: 1B Will Craig hit his second homer in as many days Sunday, a two-run shot in the fifth inning for a 4-0 Curve lead. CF Pablo Reyes had given Altoona a 2-0 lead with a two-run double in the second inning off Akron starter Sean Brady (0-1), who allowed three runs on four hits in 4 1/3 innings for the loss.

STEALING SECOND: Curve OF Jason Martin is expected to be activated today after missing the first four games with a foot injury. Martin came to the Pirates’ organization from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade.

ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Jesus Liranzo, claimed off waivers by the Pirates on Thursday, was activated Sunday. Manager Michael Ryan said Liranzo has to have his arm built up a bit since he hasn’t faced hitters since the end of spring training.

HEADING HOME: Former Curve utility man Drew Maggi has been suspended 50 games for violating baseball’s drug policy. Maggi tested positive for an amphetamine, according to published reports. Maggi, 28, played for the Curve from 2012-14 and was an Eastern League All-Star in 2014.

— Cory Giger

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