Reyes helps Curve slam Senators

08/23/18 Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Curve's Alfredo Reyes blasted a grand slam to left field in the 4th inning.

Alfredo Reyes is 24 years old, has been playing baseball since he was a little kid in the Dominican Republic and has made it high as Triple-A in his career, but never in his life had he hit a grand slam.

Until Thursday night.

“It’s my first time,” he said with a huge smile after the game. “I feel very happy. I enjoy that.”

Reyes’ grand slam in the fourth inning helped carry the Curve to a 6-3 win over Harrisburg before 4,609 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Altoona has won five in a row, and its magic number to eliminate the Senators and clinch a fourth consecutive playoff berth is down to just four with 12 games remaining.

Akron also won Thursday, so the Curve remain half a game behind the RubberDucks for the Western Division lead and top seed in the divisional playoffs.

Altoona scored five runs in the fourth inning, capped by the slam from Reyes, to take a 6-0 lead. That held up, and the red-hot Curve moved a season-high 16 games over .500 for the first time since the 2010 season.

Year in and year out, the Curve have simply found a way to play good ball late in the season and get into the playoffs. That’s come even after the team has lost outstanding players to Triple-A, which happened again this year, but still the players who remained have managed to keep up the winning ways.

Manager Michael Ryan talked after Wednesday’s win about how the goal is for the team and players to be playing their best ball at the end of the season. While that seems like a simple goal, the Curve and typically Akron and Trenton have generally been the only teams in the Eastern League that have been able to do just that consistently over the years.

What’s the secret?

“It’s a testament to our focus and our preparation,” said shortstop Cole Tucker, who won a Florida State League title with Ryan at high-A Bradenton in 2016 and an EL title with the Curve last year. “The minor league season is super long, and it’s grueling mentally and physically.

“But if we all go into it with the mentality that it is going to be hard, it is going to be taxing but our focus still has to be exceptional, that kind of gets us through it and gives us an edge against other teams just because we stress that so much.”

The Pirates, it’s no secret, want their teams to win and compete for playoff berths and championships in the minor leagues, and that can’t be said for every organization.

Some teams in the Eastern League have solid seasons and are in the mix for a playoff berth for three or four months, but a lot of times it’s the same clubs that ultimately fall out of contention down the stretch, while teams like Altoona, Akron and Trenton find ways to finish strong.

“Not to say anything about other organizations, but there’s some free agency guys that might be older for the league that get added or signed (to other teams),” Ryan said. “We promote from within, we keep the same core together each year. These guys get used to each other, whether it’s in instructional league or spring training.

“Just being familiar with one another (is big). It’s a comfort thing when guys come here because they know most of the guys. I think that’s a pretty good advantage.”

The Curve still have a number of elite prospects who have helped carry the club, but there have been a lot of role players who have done their share, as well, to help the team win of late. Reyes got his turn Thursday with the grand slam, which extended his hitting streak to 12 games.

“That’s the separator — it’s a guy every night that could be different,” Ryan said. “Tonight it was Alfredo.”

Ryan went on to compare Reyes’ grand slam to a huge pinch-hit three-run homer late last season by Jonathan Schwind that helped fuel the Curve to a strong finish and eventually the EL title.

“Jonathan Schwind had a pinch-hit three-run homer last year, and (the impact was felt by) the eruption of the dugout,” Ryan said.

“It’s fun to watch those guys get rewarded, and it was the same exact feeling tonight when Alfredo hit the grand slam. The dugout went crazy, and he’s smiling around second base. That was his first grand slam ever, so it was a perfect night for it.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: LHP Cam Vieaux pitched five shutout innings, allowing four hits while striking out seven with no walks to win for the Curve.

Key play: 3B Alfredo Reyes hit a grand slam for a 6-0 Curve lead in the fourth.

Key stat: Altoona’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to four.

SUBHD: How they scored

Bottom 1st: Alemais tripled, scored on Reynolds double (1-0).

Bottom 4th: Reynolds singled, scored on George double (2-0); Hill reached on Ward error, Kelley hit by pitch, both scored along with George on Reyes grand slam (6-0).

Top 6th: Noll walked, scored on Keller two-run homer (6-2).

Top 9th: Ward reached on Tucker error, scored on Jones single (6-3).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: 1B Will Craig and 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes were named to the end of season Eastern League All-Star team Thursday. The team was selected by league managers, coaches and media.

SAFE AT FIRST: Craig leads the EL with 97 RBIs and is tied for fourth with 20 home runs, to go along with a .248 batting average. He also has the highest fielding percentage (.993) among EL first basemen.

STEALING SECOND: Hayes is ninth in the EL in hitting at .281 and tied for fourth with 30 doubles, to go along with seven homers and 38 RBIs. His .976 fielding percentage is the best in the minor leagues among third basemen and would be the best in the Eastern League since at least 1959 if he finishes that high.

ROUNDING THIRD: LHP Cam Vieaux (9-4) earned the win Thursday, tossing five shutout innings and striking out seven. RHP Sterling Sharp (5-3) took the loss for Harrisburg, giving up six runs — five earned — in 3 2/3 innings.

HEADING HOME: Curve manager Michael Ryan on the winning culture in the Pirates’ minor league system: “Our job is to get these guys to the major leagues in Pittsburgh and to have them win a World Series in Pittsburgh. You’re just not going to go to Pittsburgh and win a World Series if you don’t know how to win. We have winning players, we have guys that are learning how to win, and most importantly we have guys that want to win.”

— Cory Giger