Hill a big part of Curve’s late-season surge

Next stop

Tonight: Harrisburg at Altoona, 6 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve LHP Cam Vieaux (8-4, 3.71) vs. Senators RHP Sterling Sharp (5-2, 3.95)

Record: 70-55

By Cory Giger

cgiger@altoonamirror.com

The Curve have been sizzling for six weeks, putting everything together, and one of the big contributors to their surge during that time belted the big hit Wednesday night.

Logan Hill’s two-run homer off major league rehabber Joe Ross in the fourth inning snapped a tie and put Altoona on top to stay. The club held on for a 3-2 win over Harrisburg before 4,652 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field in the opener of the final homestand of the regular season.

It must be stressed that this is the last homestead of the regular season, because at this point, it’s pretty close to a certainty that the Curve will indeed make the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

“The goal, if you believe in what we’re doing here and you buy into it, you’re going to play your best baseball at the end of the year. That’s what they’re doing,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said.

Altoona still trails first-place Akron by half a game, but the lead over third-place Harrisburg has swelled to seven games for the final playoff spot in the Western Division. The Curve’s magic number to clinch at least second place is down to six, and with nine games remaining on this homestand, the clinching party could be just a few days away.

“This point of the year gets real fun making a playoff run,” Hill said.

The Curve have won four in a row, and they’ve gone 28-16 since July 5. The team is now a season-high 15 games over .500 and looking more and more like the favorite to win the Eastern League title, which would be Altoona’s second in a row.

“You’ve got all three phases working together right now,” Ryan said. “We’re getting very good starting pitching, bullpen’s doing a very good job, we’ve been playing lights out on defense — man we can catch it — and some timely hits. The days that we might not provide runs offensively, our pitchers have still been stepping up and we’ve been catching the baseball.”

Hill’s big turnaround at the plate over the past six weeks has coincided with the Curve turning into the EL’s best team during that stretch. The big fellow went 3-for-3 and fell a triple shy of the cycle Wednesday, and in his last 40 games, he’s batting .301 (40-for-33) with six homers, seven doubles and 31 RBIs.

Prior to that, Hill was batting .196. He was still providing some solid power numbers, but the overall consistency just wasn’t there.

“It’s just a collective of all the struggles that I’ve gone through this year and really just working through it and kind of finding myself again,” Hill said. “Mentally staying strong, and now I’m in a good place feeling just like myself. Now it’s just go out there and have fun.”

Hill was enjoying a strong 2017 season, hitting 16 homers in 71 games at high-A Bradenton to earn a promotion to the Curve. But in just his 22nd game in Double-A, he broke his left hand getting hit by a pitch and saw his season come to an end.

“I hurt my hand a little over a year ago (last July 26), and they say it takes a year’s worth of at-bats to really feel it,” Hill said. “I was having trouble feeling where my hands were in my swing. Then just with time I’ve started being able to just relax at the plate and trust my hands.

“That was kind of a mental block I had to get over more than a physical thing is to just trust it. With time it’s come along, and I’m really starting to be myself again.”

With Will Craig (20 homers, 97 RBIs) having a terrific year and Hill doing what he’s now doing, the middle of the Curve batting order is the most dangerous it’s been all season. Craig leads the Pirates’ minor league system in homers, and Hill is second as he’s up to 17, to go along with 65 RBIs.

“We thought about all year that if this was going to be a successful season, Logan Hill was going to be in the middle of the lineup and was going to need to have success,” Ryan said. “That’s what he’s doing right now, and the adjustments that he’s been making have been really good.”

Hill has been really good of late, and last week he got really lucky. He was hit by a pitch on the left side of the face Friday at Portland, but he was able to avoid any serious damage, just needing six stitches to close up the wound.

“I was extremely lucky,” Hill said. “I think I laid on the ground for a second and was just like, all right, I’m OK, I’m not dazed, I’m not dizzy. Then when I got up I heard them yell for a towel, and I’m like, ah, I must have got cut pretty good. But man, the helmet really did its job.

“I had the face guard on, and the face guard kind of broke off and cracked and so that’s what cut me. But the ball itself never hit me, which was extremely lucky. I’m very thankful that my jaw’s not wired shut and getting my teeth put back in.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RF Logan Hill went 3-for-3 with a two-run homer and was a triple shy of the cycle for the Curve.

Key play: Hill’s two-run blast in the fourth inning gave Altoona a 3-1 lead.

Key stat: The Curve have won four in a row and are 28-16 since July 5.

SUBHD: How they scored

Bottom 2nd: Hill doubled, scored on Kelley single (1-0).

Top 4th: Ward solo homer (1-1).

Bottom 4th: George hit by pitch, scored on Hill two-run homer (3-1).

Top 7th: Ward singled, scored on Abreu single (3-2).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes could be back playing as soon as Friday for the Curve. Hayes tripped on his bat running to first base in a game last week, fell and tweaked his shoulder. Manager Michael Ryan said Hayes will go through a normal work day today and, if he feels good, will be available to play Friday.

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP Luis Escobar (4-0) turned in a strong outing to get the win for the Curve, giving up two runs on six hits over 6 1/3 innings with four strikeouts and one walk.

STEALING SECOND: LHP Sean Keselica got out of a big jam in relief in the seventh inning to protect the Curve’s 3-2 lead. Escobar had given up a run and departed with runners at the corners and just one out, and Keselica got an inning-ending double play off the bat of PH Austin Davidson.

ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Tate Scioneaux worked a scoreless eighth inning, then RHP Matt Eckelman closed it out in the ninth to earn his ninth save.

HEADING HOME: Nationals RHP Joe Ross made his first rehab start for Harrisburg and took the loss, giving up three runs on four hits with six strikeouts and no walks over five innings. Ross is coming off Tommy John surgery and had made three starts at the lower levels before joining the Senators.

— Cory Giger

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