Curve rally to stave off elimination

The Curve looked dead in the water. Down 5-0 after the first inning. Facing elimination in the playoffs and a frustrating, premature ending to what has been a terrific season.

Then …

Something magical happened.

One of the greatest moments in franchise history, and the most exciting moment of Cole Tucker’s baseball life.

Just like he had predicted only seconds earlier.

“I was talking to Ke’Bryan (Hayes) before I went up, I was like, ‘Dude, how sick would it be if I hit a grand slam right here?'” Tucker said.

And he did.

Tucker’s slam tied game 3 of the Western Division playoff series in the fifth inning, capping a season-saving comeback, and the Curve later scored three runs in the eighth to beat Akron, 8-5, Friday night before 3,385 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Logan Hill’s bases-loaded chopper behind the pitcher’s mound scored Ke’Bryan Hayes with the go-ahead run in the eighth, and Jordan George added a two-run single for some insurance.

Altoona still trails the best-of-five series, 2-1. But after the stunning turn of events Friday, the Curve have to be feeling great, while Akron has to be feeling like it let a golden opportunity slip away.

“Momentum’s a dangerous thing in this game, and we won this game and the momentum’s on our side,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said.

There wasn’t a lot of hope left for Altoona after the RubberDucks tagged starter James Marvel for five runs in the first inning. The Curve had managed only three runs and 10 hits total in losing the first two games of the series on the road.

But this game was at home, and the defending Eastern League champions weren’t about to go down quietly after posting the second-best home record in the circuit during the regular season.

Jin-De Jhang opened the fifth inning with a single, and Hill was hit by a pitch from Akron starter Zach Plesac. Arden Pabst drove in Jhang with a single two batters later for Altoona’s first run.

Akron reliever Nick Sandlin walked Stephen Alemais to load the bases, then RubberDucks manager Tony Mansolino called on lefty reliever R.C. Orlan to face Tucker, a switch hitter.

Strategically, Mansolino made a smart call. Tucker hit just five home runs during the regular season and also hit one leading off game 2 of this series, and all six of those came from the left side.

Tucker had an idea Akron would have him bat right-handed in that spot, so he was ready for it.

He also was ready to hit a grand slam, even though he had never done so in his life.

“We’re down 0-2 (in the series) and we’re down (5-1 in the game), I figure if I’m ever going to do it, this would be a really, really cool time to do it,” Tucker said with his trademark big smile.

Tucker fell behind in the count 0-2 against Orlan, but the pitcher made a mistake hanging a breaking ball high.

Tucker crushed it into the left field stands.

And the Curve dugout went nuts.

“When he hit it, you knew it was going to be a home run and a grand slam, and to be able to have the momentum swing in our favor for once in the series,” Ryan said. “Our dugout blew up.”

“When he hit it, we all felt we were going to win the game,” Hill said. “That was such a huge momentum swing.”

Tucker, a slick-fielding shortstop and good athlete, was the No. 24 overall pick in the first round of the 2014 draft. To go along with being an outstanding prospect, he’s easily the Curve’s most personable player ever — always talking and smiling and interacting with fans and teammates.

This season will be the end of the road for Tucker in Altoona, as he’ll start next year in Triple-A and could be in Pittsburgh at some point next summer. Ryan told a story of a conversation he had two weeks ago with broadcaster Trey Wilson.

“We were asking, ‘Has Tuck ever had a defining moment in a Curve uniform?'” Ryan said. “And that was it.”

Moreover, it could turn out to be one of the defining moments in franchise history. The grand slam will always have a big place in team lore, but it will be legendary if the Curve can come back to win this series and then capture another EL championship next week.

“That was really cool, especially to do it in a win-or-go-home game in a pivotal situation,” Tucker said. “That was cool.”

Something else that was cool happened after Tucker’s grand slam. The ball was scooped up in the left field bleachers by 15-year-old Michael Woolridge from Hollidaysburg, who knew exactly how big the hit was to the Curve.

“I was like shaking because it tied the game up,” Woolridge said.

The young man was approached by a security guard who asked if he would mind giving up the ball so Tucker could have it. Woolridge didn’t hesitate a bit handing over the keepsake.

“It’s probably a big achievement hitting a grand slam in a playoff game,” he said.

As a thank you to Woolridge, the Curve set it up for him to come onto the field after the game to meet Tucker and talk about the grand slam. Tucker was very appreciative and friendly to the young man, gave him a bat, and the two spent a few minutes chatting and posing for pictures. The Curve also gave him a gift as a token of appreciation.

“Defining me as a player, I’m not a power hitter at all, so it’s not like a defining moment,” Tucker said of his slam. “But most exciting moment, for sure.”

Blake Weiman won the game in relief for the Curve, while Argenis Angulo lost for Akron. Matt Eckelman pitched the ninth to earn the save.

Altoona won an incredible game, but now the attention turns to trying to even the series in game 4 this afternoon.

“We’re ready,” Tucker said. “We’ve definitely proven to ourselves and I think to Akron that we’re not just going to roll over and die, we’re not going to go away. I think we’re in a good spot to go out and win a ballgame.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: SS Cole Tucker, who hit a game-tying grand slam for the Curve in the fifth inning.

Key play: Tucker’s slam will live forever in Curve lore, but Altoona scored three runs in the eighth inning to win the game.

Key stat: Tucker had never hit a grand slam in his life, and it was the switch hitter’s first home run batting right-handed all season.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 1st: Clement walked, Krieger doubled, Rodriguez walked, all three scored on Calica double (0-3); Carter single scored Calica (0-4); Mathias triple scored Carter (0-5).

Bottom 5th: Jhang singled, scored on Pabst single (1-5); Hill hit by pitch, Alemais walked, both scored along with Pabst on Tucker grand slam (5-5).

Bottom 8th: Hayes singled, scored on Hill fielder’s choice (5-6); Craig intentionally walked, Jhang intentionally walked, both scored on George single (5-8).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Manager Michael Ryan didn’t lose faith in the Curve after they fell behind 5-0 in the first inning. “Just chip away. Try to get one here, one there, maybe we can get two,” Ryan said of his thought process. “But I knew that there was a lot of game left, and in the back of my mind I was like, all we’ve got to do is chip away.”

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP James Marvel gave up the five-spot in the first but settled down and kept Akron scoreless for the next four innings. That turned out to be huge. “I knew Marvel was going to battle and keep us in the game, and that’s exactly what happened,” Ryan said.

STEALING SECOND: Akron intentionally walked 1B Will Craig and DH Jin-De Jhang after running into trouble in the eighth. With the bases loaded, RF Logan Hill bounced a high chopper that was fielded to the back right of the mound. RHP Argenis Angulo fielded it and threw home, but 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes slid in safely for a 6-5 Curve lead. “I just thought run, so they couldn’t turn a double play,” Hill said. “Luckily I just thank Ke for being fast there and getting to home plate.”

ROUNDING THIRD: Former American League MVP 3B Josh Donaldson started for Akron and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on a rehab assignment.

HEADING HOME: RHP Dario Agrazal starts for the Curve tonight. He struggled in his final two starts of the regular season, including giving up a whopping 10 runs on 13 hits in just three innings six days ago at Bowie. “Based on his last bullpen session, we expect him to show up and put us in a position to win,” Ryan said. “Very comfortable with what I saw in between the last start in Bowie to how he’s prepared and went about his business for (today). He said (Thursday) he’s ready to pitch.”

— Cory Giger