It was about a year ago today that I was watching the Lynchburg Hillcats, then the high-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, clinching the playoffs in the Carolina League, followed by their eventual playoff run which resulted in the Carolina League championship. One year later, most of that same team is in Altoona, one level higher, and potentially on track for the same result.
The Altoona Curve clinched first place in the Western division of the Eastern league with a 9-1 victory over the Bowie Baysox tonight. Altoona currently holds a seven and a half game division lead, clinching first place with a little less than a week remaining in the regular season. Minor league records don’t usually indicate future major league success, but there is reason for hope in this case. The 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats and the 2010 Altoona Curve are both fueled by many of the same Pittsburgh Pirates prospects, and some of the best prospects in the farm system.
Take Rudy Owens, for example. Owens is a consensus top ten prospect in the Pittsburgh farm system. Tonight Owens was dominant, pitching six shutout innings, allowing four hits, no walks, and striking out nine. Two of those hits were infield singles. Owens got ahead of hitters often, throwing first pitch strikes to 13 of the first 16 batters, and 17 of the 21 batters he faced. That’s been the story for Owens all season, as heading in to tonight Owens had a 2.56 ERA in 144 innings, with a 123:23 K/BB ratio.
Owens has been joined in the Altoona rotation this year by Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson. Morris and Locke both rate in the top ten of the Pirates’ farm system, while Wilson falls just outside of the top ten, landing in the top 15. All three are joining Owens with great seasons.
Then there’s the offense. Matt Hague, a top 30 prospect in the Pirates’ farm system, led the strong offensive output tonight. In the third inning, Hague was hit with a pitch, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Hector Gimenez followed that with a single to right field, and Hague steamrolled the catcher, who was trying to make the play on a throw just wide of the plate. Hague later hit a solo homer, his 14th of the 2010 season, making the score 4-0 at the time in the 5th inning. Then, with the game already out of reach, Hague hit a two run bomb in the eighth inning for his 15th homer of the season, making the score 9-1.
Hague with the play at the plate in the third, and his first homer of the night in the fifth inning.
Altoona was helped tonight with big nights from Jim Negrych and Anthony Norman. Negrych went 2-for-5 with two RBIs, with RBI singles in the third and the seventh. Norman went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI triple in the second inning, bringing in the first Altoona run of the night.
Derek Hankins came on to pitch the final three innings. Hankins ran in to trouble in the seventh inning, allowing a run and escaping a bases loaded jam without any additional damage. Hankins pitched three innings, allowing one run on five hits, with no walks and five strikeouts.
Altoona will play either Bowie or Harrisburg in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs. Harrisburg currently leads Bowie by half a game. Altoona has two more games in this series against Bowie, so they can play a role in who their opponents will be next week.
The Pirates Prospects minor league season ending tour will continue tomorrow with coverage of the State College Spikes. Zac Fuesser will be on the mound for State College as they take on Auburn.