Gaffney walks it off for Curve

Chicago may officially be known as the Windy City, but conditions became pretty breezy in Altoona from the amount of whiffs at the plate as a pitchers’ duel broke out during Thursday’s Curve game.

Fifteen combined strikeouts through the first four innings and 24 overall for the entire game highlighted the pitching masterpiece of a 1-0 Curve walk-off win over Reading, keeping a crowded Peoples Natural Gas Field of 5,026 fans in attendance for the Game of Hope waiting for a single run until the night’s final pitch.

Curve lefty Taylor Hearn (2-4) set the night’s tone by striking out the opening side on just 11 pitches. Hearn struck out the first batter of the second frame before Jan Hernandez finally put bat to ball as he flew out to left field.

“He was putting it wherever he wanted,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “He was going in. He was going away. You throw that hard by people early and then you can mix and fool people late. That just allows you to strike out so many people, and Taylor did a good job with that.”

Cole Tucker hit a leadoff single for the Curve before lefty Ranger Suarez (2-2) retired 10 consecutive Altoona batters in his attempt to match Hearn pitch for pitch.

The game remained locked at zero until Tyler Gaffney — the former standout Stanford running back and two-time Super Bowl champion — finally broke the gridlock with a walk-off single in the ninth, his first double-A hit.

Stephen Alemais opened the Curve ninth with an infield single and was at third with two outs when Gaffney came up. Gaffney, who just joined the Curve on Tuesday from high-A Bradenton, hit a single to center field to bring in Alemais with the game winner.

The run ended a combined scoring drought of over 16 innings for Reading and Altoona, dating back to the four runs the Curve scored in the first inning of Wednesday’s victory.

Curve reliever Sean Keselica earned his second win of the season, while Ed Garcia (5-2) took the loss for Reading.

For Hearn, his 106 pitches were a career high, and no pitch was more important than No. 106 as he struck out Heiker Meneses with two runners on to end the seventh inning. The seven innings pitched and nine strikeouts were season-highs for the fourth-year pro.

“I felt like my legs were gone,” Hearn said. “I’ve been having outings that were five and six innings, so once you get to seven, that when it really hits you.”

Although Hearn’s performance officially went down as a no-decision thanks to his pitching counterpart on Reading, Hearn credited Suarez’s equally strong outing of seven innings and nine strikeouts with elevating his own play.

“It’s hard to go tat for tat and try to do what (Suarez) was doing,” Hearn said. “It was keeping me on edge and pushing me even more. It was tough because we were both battling out there. I tip my cap to him.”

Reading threatened to spoil Hearn’s performance in the eighth when the Curve bullpen allowed two runners to get aboard, but Keselica entered to save the gem.

“Honestly, I wasn’t nervous,” Hearn said. “We have really dependable guys in there. Yeah, we’ve been a little shaky, but at the end of the day, any given day, the bullpen from top to bottom can go out there and get it done.”

Game recap

Key player: LHP Taylor Hearn (1-4) struck out nine and allowed only four hits in seven innings pitched

Key play: Tyler Gaffney walk-off single for his first hit as a member of the Curve.

Key stat: 13 combined strikeouts in the first three innings.

How they scored

Bottom 9th: Alemais singled, scored on Gaffney single (1-0).