While many were off Monday for Labor Day, the Altoona Curve were at home working hard to earn their division championship and they did just that.

It was Mitchell Tolman, just called up from Single-A Bradenton Sunday, who walked it off for the Altoona Curve to ultimately clinch the Eastern League Western Division Championship. Tolman, who seemed to have brought his own cheering section from his days in West Virginia, smacked an opposite-field three-run home run off the tarp on the left field bleachers to put the Harrisburg Senators away for the season.

Substitute pitcher Tomas Morales roped a double to left field in the bottom of the 12th inning before lead-off hitter Cole Tucker was intentionally walked with Tolman up next.

The win catapults the Curve into the playoffs as they face Bowie in game-one of the best-of-five Eastern League Divisional Series beginning Wednesday evening. Altoona will be play game-two in Bowie before returning home for game-three, as well as game-four and five if necessary.

To get to the playoffs has been no easy task for the Curve, but with a steady diet of production from guys who have been in Altoona throughout the season, guys who were recently called up from Bradenton,

Keller earns game-one nod

Mitch Keller might be soft-spoken off the field, but his on-field performance speaks volumes for the pitching prospect. The right-handed Altoona Curve fireballer went six shut-out innings striking out a career-high 11 while only surrendering three hits and a walk.

“It was a good outing for him to go into game-one,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said following Friday’s game.

And while Keller has been lights out for the most part since being promoted, Wednesday’s game-one start will be as normal as possible for the highly-touted pitcher even though it’ll be in the playoffs.

“It will be on his normal rest,” Ryan said of his game-one starter. “You want to keep a highly touted prospect on normal rest. You don’t want to push him up, or push him back.”

Keller’s performance Friday night comes off his worst outing since being called-up a few weeks ago. While Keller’s arsenal did not quite change from outing to outing, it was all about execution for the young righty.

“I don’t think anything changed mentality wise,” Keller said. “I just think I executed pitches better.”

Being able to execute is the main story for success involving pitchers from Little League to professional baseball. Where Keller succeeded in his execution was claiming the inside part of the plate for left-handed hitters. Typically lefties want pitched middle out as they are able to extend their hands and be strong through the strike zone with the bat. Keller with his fastball and change-up was able to thwart that mentality early and it paid dividends in getting ground ball outs from a lefty heavy line-up.

“Getting ahead right away, executing pitches inside to those lefties,” Keller said of what worked.  “It just goes back to preparing for it. I saw a lot of those guys didn’t like inside fastballs, they like to get their hands out and do some damage. Just setting that in their minds right away with strike one.”

Keller didn’t know he would be the game-one starter until Ryan took him out Friday night after his confidence-building performance against the Senators.

“It just gives you a lot of confidence,” Keller said of having a dominant outing right before the playoffs begin. “I have all the confidence in the world right now especially coming off tonight (Friday). Just seeing all three pitches work the best they have all season, it’s a lot of fun knowing I have that going for me.”

Tucker locked in, after slow start

Cole Tucker struggled mightily when he got promoted from Bradenton to the Altoona Curve and the shortstop prospect will tell you that himself, but recently, the switch-hitting Tucker has been locked in as the Curve enter the playoffs.

“I don’t know if it was a testament to being a switch-hitter or not, but I struggled badly,” Tucker said of his struggles after getting called up. “I think, more so than anything other than the level jump, it was me trying to do too much, trying to justify me being here and all that.”

Since then, Tucker’s batting average and statistics have all steadily grown to the tune of hitting .351 in his last 10 games as Altoona made the push for the playoffs. In those 10 games, the speedy Tucker has worked five walks and stole six bases.

“Now, I’ve gotten away from that (trying to do too much),” Tucker said. “I’m just going out, having fun, trying to hit the ball hard, and good things happen when you do that.”

The lead-off hitting Tucker plays a pivotal role in getting the Curve offense going game after game especially in the playoffs, something not lost on the 21-year old shortstop.

“In the playoffs, , as I learned down the stretch with the Bradenton team last year, it’s about putting the team in a better position to win,” Tucker said of his playoff mentality. “I feel like I’m ready to do that and we have 25 other guys in the locker room ready to do that as well.

Jarrod Prugar

Jarrod Prugar is 5 and a half feet tall and you can’t teach that. Jarrod grew up watching future Pirates light up the Eastern League for the Altoona Curve before going off to Robert Morris for college.

Jarrod also covers Penn State for the Pittsburgh Sporting News. Ban the DH!