Escobar pitching highlight of Curve’s loss

The Curve played a second straight clunker after clinching a playoff berth and fell back into a tie for first with Akron, but one of the coolest things of the season also happened to the team during Tuesday night’s game.

Trenton trounced Altoona, 8-1, before 3,425 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The Thunder have won the first two games of the series by a combined score of 13-2, and they remain one game behind New Hampshire for the Eastern Division regular-season title.

“They just took us to the woodshed tonight,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said.

It was a bad loss, and sure, it’s easy to get caught up in nothing but playoff talk at this time of year. But what happened in the middle innings Tuesday showed that minor league baseball is still about individual stories of development and success.

Three months ago, Elvis Escobar was an outfielder for the Curve, then the Pirates decided to have him transition to become a pitcher. The left-hander had to go down to low-A West Virginia to learn how to pitch, and he was fantastic there.

So, with the Curve having an opening in their bullpen, the Pirates gave Escobar a shot at it by promoting him to Double-A a couple of days ago.

The left-hander made his full-time Double-A pitching debut Tuesday, blanking Trenton for 2 1/3 innings while striking out five and giving up two hits and one walk.

“That felt great,” Escobar said with a big smile. “I didn’t think it was going to be that way. I don’t know how to explain it, I just threw with confidence. I felt like I pitched here before, so I’m just happy.”

Escobar is a lefty who throws 95 mph, which is why the Pirates decided to try him as a pitcher. He also showed a dandy curveball Tuesday and throws a changeup, and he looked ever so comfortable on the mound.

“When I gave him the ball, you could just tell how excited he was,” Ryan said. “Just the way he competed was the bright spot for us tonight.”

Even though the Curve lost the game, Ryan added, “That’s an organization win for us tonight, so I’m glad that he had that outing.”

Escobar was terrific at West Virginia, going 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 15 relief appearances. He allowed just 17 hits in 26 innings, struck out 28 with 12 walks and had a 1.115 WHIP.

“The first five outings (at West Virginia) were almost perfect, and after that there was kind of some struggling for two outings,” Escobar said. “Then I felt I just got that confidence back, and I (had success) for the next 13, 14 innings, and I just rode that confidence from there to here.”

When he took the mound Tuesday, he said, “I didn’t think about pitching at a higher level. I just felt the same confidence I felt down there, and that worked for me.”

The Curve were trailing 7-1 when Escobar came on to pitch with two outs in the sixth inning, so it wasn’t any sort of what baseball people call a leverage situation. Will Ryan try him in a tough spot at some point the rest of the season or the playoffs?

“I’d like to see some more (before doing that),” the manager said. “We’ll see how the next outing goes and make a decision.

“The stuff played, so we’ll see if it can translate into a close game or maybe match with a lefty here or there and see how he responds to that.”

Escobar faced long odds of getting to the major leagues as an outfielder, but as a lefty who throws 95 with good offspeed stuff, he just may have found his calling.

Why has he been able to make such a smooth transition so quickly?

“I have no answer for that,” Escobar said. “I’ve just been working so hard since I made the transition, and everything’s working. I’ve been working on my fastball, getting it in the strike zone, been working on my changeup and my breaking ball just working together.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: DH Jorge Saez went 3-for-6 with three RBIs and a run for Trenton.

Key play: LF Trey Amburgey’s two-run double in the fifth broke a 1-1 tie and put the Thunder up for good.

Key stat: Trenton has outscored the Curve 13-2 in winning the first two games of the series.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 1st: Caldwell tripled, scored on Saez single (0-1).

Bottom 1st: Tucker solo homer (1-1).

Top 5th: Caldwell singled, Wagner singled, both scored on Amburgey double (1-3).

Top 6th: Crawford walked, scored on Rijo groundout (1-4); Hendrix singled, scored on Saez single (1-5); Caldwell walked, scored on Helton wild pitch (1-6); Wagner single scored Saez (1-7).

Top 9th: Hendrix doubled, scored on Saez groundout (1-8).

Next stop

Tonight: Trenton at Altoona, 6 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve RHP Dario Agrazal (5-4, 2.74) vs. Thunder RHP Nick Green (0-2, 6.10)

Record: 74-58

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Akron won Tuesday, so the RubberDucks and Curve are tied once again for first place in the Western Division. If the teams finish tied, Altoona will win the tiebreaker and be the top seed in the playoff series by virtue of winning the head-to-head season series, 12-10.

SAFE AT FIRST: Curve manager Michael Ryan was asked if the back-to-back rough losses were just clunkers by his team after clinching Sunday night or if was more of running into a good opponent in Trenton. “You saw what they threw out there today — 97 with unbelievable slider (by RHP Jonathan Loaisiga) and then they back it up with (RHP Domingo) Acevedo,” a prized prospect.

STEALING SECOND: Ryan added, “(Trenton) shut us down offensively. They had some really good at-bats, the way that they ran the bases, it looked like they’re still playing for something. And so are we. We’ve just got to show up (today) and compete with them.”

ROUNDING THIRD: Acevedo (3-3) got the win in relief for the Thunder, while LHP Cam Vieaux (9-5) took the loss for the Curve, giving up three runs on eight hits in five innings.

HEADING HOME: Ryan said he’s looking for players to get hot at the end of the regular season, and the ones who do will play in the playoffs. “There’s guys that are competing for at-bats, and there’s guys that are competing for innings in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s what you need to do to get up and think that just because you clinched a spot that it’s an automatic that you’re going to get those innings or get those at-bats, it’s not. We need momentum, and we’re going to go with guys that are hot.”

— Cory Giger

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