Double-A Altoona's already inauspicious start to the postseason was further dampened when it surrendered five runs in the opening inning of Game 3 of the Eastern League semifinals on Friday. After dropping the first two games and falling into an early deficit against the RubberDucks, the Curve began to reverse their fortune with a big fly from Cole Tucker.
"I was warming up on deck, and I was talking with Ke'Bryan Hayes, coming up with the bases loaded," the Pirates' fifth-ranked prospect said. "I was like, 'Dude, how sick would it be if I hit a grand slam right here?'"
Tucker made good on his prediction, belting a game-tying slam in the fifth inning to spark Altoona's 8-5 comeback win over Akron at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The homer was his second in as many days as the 22-year-old shortstop improved to .364 (4-for-11) with five RBIs and four runs scored in the best-of-5 series.
Gameday box score
Tucker batted .259/.333/.356 with five homers, seven triples, 21 doubles, 44 RBIs and 35 stolen bases over 133 Double-A games. The 2014 first-rounder got a taste of the EL for 42 games with Altoona last year, compiling a .257/.349/.377 slash line with 11 extra-base hits and 18 RBIs after batting .285/.364/.426 with 36 steals over 68 games with Class A Advanced Bradenton.
The switch-hitter did not homer in 103 regular season at-bats against southpaws, but bucked the trend with Friday night's long ball off R.C. Orlan, Akron's third pitcher to work in the fifth inning. RubberDucks starter Zach Plesac exited with two on and one out. Arden Pabst greeted Nick Sandlin with an RBI single to right and Stephen Alemais walked to load the bases and chase Sandlin. Tucker got behind in the count, 0-2, before taking Orlan deep to left-center.
Video: Tucker's game-tying grand slam for Altoona
"I just went up there, swung really hard, tried to hit something really hard and ran into an 0-2 slider," Tucker said. "I kind of went numb. You just have that crazy adrenaline rush and I just kind of freaked out. It was cool to be able to drive in those runs for the team. ... We kind of felt the momentum swing our way"
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Hayes, the Pirates' second-ranked prospect, led off the eighth with a bloop single to right before swiping second and advancing on a flyout to right from No. 8 Pittsburgh prospect Bryan Reynolds. Akron loaded the bases for Logan Hill with intentional walks to 16th-ranked Will Craig and Jin-De Jhang. Hill hit a soft chopper to the left of the mound, but the throw from Akron reliever Nick Pasquale did not beat the speedy Hayes to the plate.
"Every night, [Hayes] seems to do something ... that amazes you," Tucker said. "He always does something to help us win. ... It was really fun to see Ke'Bryan do that tonight."
Altoona added two more runs on Jordan George's single to left. Jhang finished 3-for-3 with two runs scored and Alemais singled twice and walked.
James Marvel shrugged off the five-run first and limited the RubberDucks to two baserunners from the second through the fifth. In all, he allowed six hits and two walks while striking out four.
"Marvel did a really good job of keeping us in it on the bump," Tucker said. "We kind of had an unlucky first inning, but we kept the mentality that it ain't over 'til it's over, and we're not ready to go home and see our families and wives and girlfriends yet."
Rehabbing Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, was the only player in Akron's starting lineup without a hit. Jodd Carter led the RubberDucks with two knocks, including an RBI single. Andrew Calica delivered a two-run double, and Mark Mathias added an RBI triple.
The Curve host Game 4 on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
In other Eastern League playoff action:
New Hampshire 5, Trenton 1
The Fisher Cats clinched a spot in the Championship Series for the first time since 2011 following a four-hour rain delay at Arm & Hammer Park. Blue Jays No. 9 prospect and league MVP Cavan Biggio drove in three runs with a pair of hits, while Patrick Cantwell contributed three knocks, including a double. Harold Ramirez delivered an RBI single and scored twice for New Hampshire, which swept the best-of-3 semifinal. Blue Jays No. 28 prospect Jordan Romano yielded an unearned run on three hits and a walk with two strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings for the win. Gameday box score