There was no doubt Alex Dickerson was going to be named the Curve's team MVP on Sunday, but shortly after receiving that award he got some even better news.
Dickerson was named the Eastern League's Rookie of the Year, an honor bestowed upon him by the league's managers and media. The outfielder has had a storybook second half of the season, then after receiving his award he went out and had a storybook game.
"I just didn't know [that award] existed in minor league baseball, honestly," Dickerson said. "I was just surprised. It's a nice award to achieve."
About 10 minutes after receiving his awards, Dickerson ripped a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw. That blast ignited the Curve offense, which erupted for eight runs in the first inning and went on to beat Akron, 8-3, before 5,915 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
The win assured the Curve will not tie the franchise record for losses in a season (80), as they enter today's finale at 63-78.
Dickerson laughed when asked about immediately following up on his award with a big home run.
Pirates closer Jason Grilli is scheduled to make his second rehab start for the Curve in today's season finale. Grilli will throw one inning or 20 pitches. He's coming back from a forearm strain.
Outfielder Andrew Lambo and pitcher Jared Hughes were optioned from the Pirates to the Curve on Saturday, but they will not actually be coming to Altoona. Those moves were made to free up space on the big league roster, and after the Curve season ends today, they can be called back up to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, along with pitcher Jeff Locke, who also was optioned to the Curve and did report to Altoona for one day Saturday.
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez, who's with the Curve for a few days before going back to the majors, had this to say about GM Neal Huntington pulling off some big trades in recent days: "Neal's making moves. Neal's in it to win it. There's no messing around."
"Yeah, I didn't really plan it that way, but it was nice that it ended up the way it did," he said. "And I ended up having a pretty good day after that."
Indeed he did, as Dickerson went 4-for-4 to raise his average to .291. He's been one of the best hitters in all of Double-A since June, raising all of his statistics from the low levels they were at after a slow start in April and May.
Andrew Lambo was the most productive hitter in the EL when he was with the Curve and would have been a viable MVP had he stayed longer. But once Lambo left, Dickerson's emergence made him the easy choice for that honor, and he enters the final day of the season with 17 homers, 68 RBIs and .838 OPS.
"He put a good season together," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "Definitely it's one of those cases that the longer the season goes, the better he gets."
Dickerson did that last year in Single-A, too, as he started off slow before putting together a big season at Bradenton and being named Florida State League Player of the Year.
Dickerson getting the EL Rookie of the Year award was a bit of a surprise, although it probably shouldn't have been as his second half has been so good that he impressed everyone in the league. He was a midseason All-Star, was the league's player of the month in July and was a two-time winner of the player of the week honor.
"Especially from where I came from [early in the season], it's really nice to look back at the end and achieve two awards like that," Dickerson said. "It's hard to achieve them, and it just shows that if you put the work in it will turn around."
The Curve gave out several other team awards Sunday, including:
n Pitcher of the Year -- Casey Sadler: He's 11-7 with a 3.31 ERA, tying for fourth in the EL in wins and ranking fifth in ERA. He was recently promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.
n Unsung Hero -- Two players received this: first baseman Justin Howard and pitcher David Bromberg, who's now in Triple-A. Howard entered Sunday leading all of Double-A in hitting since June 1 with a .339 average. He also overcame a slow start and is at .320 with eight homers, 38 RBIs and .879 OPS.
Bromberg is seventh in the EL with a 3.51 ERA and has pitched in very tough luck with little run support, leading to a 6-12 record.
n Fireman of the Year: This is for relievers, and closer Luis Sanz was honored for saving 16 games in 17 tries. He has a .291 ERA since June 1, and for the season he's 3-5 with a 4.94 ERA.
n Iron Man -- Jarek Cunningham: The second baseman leads the team with 18 homers and has played in a club-high 130 games. He was a midseason All-Star and is hitting .215 with 48 RBIs and has committed just nine errors.
Sunday's game featured a very rare occurrence as Akron starter Toru Murata threw an astounding 43 pitches in the first inning alone, a figure that's almost never seen in the minor leagues, particularly in Double-A or below. Murata gave up eight runs on eight hits in the inning, but manager Edwin Rodriguez left him in the entire time.
The Aeros didn't even start getting anyone warmed up in the bullpen until Murata was at 38 pitches. By comparison, the Pirates have long had an organizational policy that pitchers who throw 30-35 pitches in an inning will be lifted from the game in or after that frame.
Murata (6-6) not only stayed in the game after his disastrous first inning, he went on to throw four shutout innings after that. And strangely enough, he had been very good against the Curve in four starts this season prior to Sunday, going 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA.
Murata throws a ton of offspeed pitches, some as slow as the 63 mph range, and has a fastball that tops out around 87 mph. Still, he had been effective this season until the Curve lit him up in the first inning.
Alen Hanson and Adalberto Santos opened the inning with hits before Dickerson belted his three-run homer. Tony Sanchez, who's with the Curve for a few days before rejoining the Pirates, singled and Howard doubled before Andy Vasquez belted a three-run homer.
Ali Solis singled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Hanson, and Drew Maggi was hit by a pitch and scored the final run on a single by Santos to make it 8-0. The outburst fell one run shy of the team season high for an inning, which was nine on April 9 at Akron, the day Lambo hit for the cycle.
"His offspeed stuff, he was leaving it up all day, and we just did a really good job of sitting back and capitalizing on it," Dickerson said of Murata. "In the past we would chase him or chase early and wouldn't get to a lot of those good pitches to hit and would just pop them up or something. All the way one through nine today we just really got to him."
That's true, as all nine Curve starters had at least one hit. Hanson, Santos, Howard, Vasquez and Solis each had two.
Lefty Nate Baker (4-4), who has had a rough season, finished up on a strong note as he allowed just two runs on seven hits in six innings for the win. He finishes with a 6.05 ERA.
SUBHD: Game recap
Key player: RF Alex Dickerson went 4-for-4.
Key play: Dickerson's three-run homer ignited the Curve to an eight-run first inning.
Key stat: Akron starter Toru Murata threw an incredible 43 pitches in the first inning in allowing eight runs. He rebounded with four shutout innings after that.
SUBHD: How they scored
Bottom 1st: Hanson singled, Santos singled, both scored on Dickerson three-run homer (3-0); Sanchez singled, Howard doubled, both scored on Vasquez three-run homer (6-0); Solis singled, scored on Hanson sacrifice fly (7-0); Maggi hit by pitch, scored on Santos single (8-0).
Top 6th: Rodriguez singled, scored on Holt double (8-1); Abraham single scored Holt (8-2).
Top 7th: Wallace singled, scored on Rodriguez single (8-3).