Waddell leads Curve to win in Game 1 of Eastern League finals

Waddell leads Curve to win in Game 1 of Eastern League finals

TRENTON, N.J. -- Brandon Waddell can't quite pinpoint when he was first anointed with his 'Big Game' nickname - it was either during the University of Virginia's College World Series run in 2014 or 2015, he said - but he's not complaining about it and based on his playoff track record, it looks like it might just stick.

The Pirates' No. 23 prospect continued his postseason success with Double-A Altoona Tuesday night, hurling six scoreless frames as the Curve took down Double-A Trenton in a 2-1 pitchers' duel at ARM & HAMMER Park in Game 1 of the Eastern League Championship Series.

"I've said it before, but when you're a little kid and you're playing in the backyard, you put yourself in a big game," Waddell said after earning the win. "You imagine yourself in the World Series or maybe a big game. If I had to pick one thing, I'd think maybe it stems from that, but outside of that, I don't think it's really anything special. I think it's just going out and trying to execute."

Waddell's track record of performing in crucial spots dates back to his time at the University of Virginia. The southpaw won the decisive Game 3 against Vanderbilt on short rest to help lift the Cavaliers to their first College World Series championship in program history in 2015. Waddell not only outdueled Walker Buehler (currently the Dodgers' top prospect), but he also held former Vandy star Dansby Swanson hitless.

"If I lose that nervousness, it kind of makes me feel that it doesn't really matter anymore, which isn't the case," he said of pitching in big games. "I enjoy feeling a little nervous, kind of hone that energy and be in control of it."

The Pirates selected Waddell in the fifth-round of the 2015 Draft and he continued to dominate in big spots after beginning his pro career. In 2015, he allowed two hits in six scoreless innings in his Minor League playoff debut in the New York-Penn League. Last year, Waddell tossed seven one-hit innings for Altoona to win his second pro postseason game in as many starts.

On Tuesday, Waddell faced off against Yankees No. 14 prospect Dillon Tate and the matchup featuring a pair of top 30 pitching prospects did not disappoint. Tate set the tone early by striking out the first two Altoona hitters and flashing a 97-mph fastball, while Waddell struggled a bit in the first inning, allowing two two-out hits before fanning Dante Bichette Jr. swinging to end the frame.

Tate was cruising early for the Thunder, as he didn't allow a hit until the fourth inning when Jerrick Suiter roped a two-out single to left. However, the Curve hitters started to get to Tate in the fifth. A Trenton double play erased a leadoff walk, but Altoona got on the board following consecutive hits from Michael Suchy, Elvis Escobar and Mitchell Tolman. Tate induced a flyout to end the frame, and that was the extent of the damage in his quality start.

Tate allowed four hits and one run and struck out three in six innings in what might be his final start of the year for Trenton. Next month, he'll join Justus Sheffield and Estevan Florial as fellow Yankees top 30 prospects competing in the Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Sheffield is scheduled to start Game 2 of the ELSC and Florial joined the Thunder for the team's series against the Curve, but did not appear in the opener.

While Waddell said after the game that he took a step back during the middle innings, he appeared to become more efficient as his outing progressed. After allowing four hits in the first three frames, Waddell let up just one hit in the final three innings and retired nine out of the 10 final hitters he faced.

The Curve tacked on an important insurance run in the seventh after Jose Mesa relieved Tate. Altoona snapped Mesa's 22 1/3-innings scoreless streak when Escobar singled to right to score Casey Hughston, which proved pivotal after the Thunder scored in the eighth inning to cut the deficit to one run. Yankees No. 18 prospect Thairo Estrada hit an infield single to score Billy Fleming, but the Thunder couldn't push across the tying run from third base with one out.

The Thunder threatened to tie it up in the bottom of the ninth, but Rashad Crawford grounded out and Sharif Othman struck out to end the game after Abiatal Avelino ripped a double down the right-field line.

Like Tate, an injury limited the number of innings Waddell threw this season and he will also pitch in the Arizona Fall League.

"They had an unbelievable time," Waddell said of the teammates he's talked to who have played in the AFL. "It kind of goes back to you're playing against the top guys, a lot of these guys are top prospects and stuff. You get to be on the field with these guys, you get to meet guys from different organizations. I think all-around it's just a privilege to be able to go, so I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to keep playing baseball."

Matt Castello is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matt_castello. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.