Five runs batted in from left fielder Mike Papi were more than enough for the Akron RubberDucks as they defeated the Altoona Curve 9-4 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five Eastern League Western Division Series from Canal Park on Friday night.
Akron took an early lead and doubled that score the following inning off of Altoona’s Nick Kingham. Nellie Rodriguez singled to left and went to second on a single from Papi. Kingham struck out Eric Haase swinging before walking Eric Stamets to load the bases. Mark Mathias came through with the big hit to put Akron on the board, driving home Rodriguez and Papi on the play. Mathias was thrown out trying to stretch it to a two-base hit and Ivan Castillo grounded out with a runner on third, but Akron was on top, 2-0.
That lead became 4-0 for Akron starter Rob Kaminsky in the next frame. Greg Allen popped out before Kingham walked Yan Gomes and Jordan Smith. Rodriguez struck out for the second out, but Papi delivered a two-out, two-run single to right, chasing Kingham from the ball game.
The top of the fourth was a mess for Kaminsky, but could have been much worse. Edwin Espinal and Stetson Allie each singled to open the inning before a fly to left by Tomas Morales. Eric Wood drew a walk to load the bases for Jonathan Schwind, who singled home Espinal to make it a 4-1 game. Chris Diaz walked with the bases loaded, forcing home Allie with the second run of the inning. Kevin Newman followed with a double to left, scoring Wood and Schwind. Rounding third all the way from first, Diaz was gunned down in between third and home as Papi relayed to Stamets, who fired to Haase at the dish before he threw back to Castillo at third to retire the Altoona base runner.
The damage was done, however, as the Curve had tied the game up at 4-4.
Kaminsky got three easier outs in the air in the fifth before exiting for Cameron Hill with the game still locked at four. He got in trouble right away as Allie doubled to left and, after a strikeout by Morales, moved to third on a wild pitch. Wood drew a walk, but was caught stealing for the second out and Schwind was called out on strikes, leaving Allie stranded 90 feet from home.
Akron got a runner to third in the home half, but suffered a similar fate. Stamets doubled to right and after two groundouts, was able to get to third with a stolen base. Allen drew a walk, but Gomes flied to center to leave the men on the corners.
Hill worked the tight rope act again in the seventh as Newman tripled to right with one out. The right-hander buckled down and struck out Anderson Feliz swinging before getting Barrett Barnes to pop to short, squashing another Curve scoring opportunity.
The ‘Ducks lucked into a run in the bottom of the frame. Smith and Rodriguez drew back-to-back walks, but Papi’s sacrifice bunt failed as pitcher Cody Dickson fired to third to force out Smith. With two on and one out and Haase at the plate, Altoona catcher Morales fired down to first base on a pickoff attempt but his wild throw ended up down the first base line on the warning track, allowing Rodriguez to score all the way from second to give Akron a 5-4 lead. Haase would strike out and after an intentional walk of Stamets, Mathias flied to left.
Cole Sulser took over to start the eighth, with Hill the pitcher of record with the new lead. Sulser allowed a two-out single to Morales, who advanced to second on a passed ball, but he would move no further as Altoona’s Wood grounded out to second.
Akron blew the game open in their half of the eighth against Dickson. With one down, Allen singled and stole second. He scored on a double to left by Gomes to make it 6-4. Smith was hit by a pitch and Montana DuRapau came on in relief, getting a fly ball from Rodriguez for the second out, but giving up another ball in the air that was far more costly as Papi’s three-run big fly sailed over the wall in right to give Akron a 9-4 advantage with three outs to go.
Sulser stayed on for the ninth, striking out Jin-De Jhang swinging before a fly out from Erich Weiss and a liner to second by Newman.
Papi was easily the biggest star of the game for both clubs as he went 3-for-5 at the plate with five runs batted in and two runs scored while hitting his second homer of the series against Altoona. Rodriguez had a single and a double, drew a walk, and scored twice.
Hill earned the win in relief while Sulser was credited with a save. Dickson was tagged with the loss in relief after allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits and five walks in four and one-third innings. The Altoona staff combined to allow ten hits and nine walks in the ball game.
Game 4 of the series is scheduled for 7:05 PM ET Saturday from Akron’s Canal Park. Right-hander Nick Pasquale (7-8, 3.39 ERA in 22 combined games at three levels in 2016) will start for the ‘Ducks, while 22-year-old left-hander Brandon Waddell (11-9, 3.49 ERA in 27 combined games at High-A and Double-A in 2016) will counter for the Curve.
Altoona will need a victory in that contest to force a Game 5 in Akron on Sunday night at 6:05 PM ET.
Photo: David Monseur/MiLB.com