Pirates

Below Deck: Altoona’s Tucker bonds with Jack Wilson

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COLE TUCKER - MILB.COM

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Jack Wilson and Cole Tucker will forever be linked, but their bond goes deeper than a position in the infield. Their relationship began back in 2014, when Tucker was selected 24th overall by the Pirates in the MLB Draft.

"I was at the draft day representing the Pirates in the MLB room in New Jersey, and I was the one who was able to write his name down on the card and hand it in," Wilson said to a group of reporters at PNG Field, shortly after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Tucker, now a 22-year-old shortstop for Double-A Altoona.

That isn't lost on Tucker.

"Just from him being a Pirates shortstop and me hopefully being a Pirates shortstop one day, we have that connection. We keep in touch, so it was cool to have that little moment out there with him and his daughter," Tucker said.

As good a player as Wilson was, Tucker considers him an even better man and friend.

"He's the man. He's a good guy to know, obviously. He did it, he did it for a long time, he did it where I want to go." Tucker said. "I can't say enough about him, a family guy, upstanding human being, just a really good person."

Tucker has displayed glove work that's impressed many of those around him, including Wilson, and makes spectacular plays each night he's on the field.

"I love his glove. Obviously, being a shortstop, that's going to be how you stay there is defensively. His range is phenomenal, I watched him take ground balls today before the game," Wilson said. "He's got great hands, great instincts. Those are the things you really can't teach, that athleticism, he's got great feet.  He's still a young guy so he's got time to develop on the offensive side, but defensively he looks like he's ready to make the next step."

The offensive side of the ball Wilson mentioned is one of the toughest things to pick up in professional baseball and Tucker has been far from a slouch at the plate, but his hitting doesn't quite rival the quality of his glove, not yet at least. For Tucker, improving his hitting is a process and he's continuing to learn and grow with each game and plate appearance.

"As minor leaguers we're always learning about ourselves and learning about the game and situations. We always use the term we're 'playing chess' in the higher levels and in the lower levels you're playing checkers," Tucker said.

"I think I have a better understanding of the situation and what people are trying to do against me. Defensively, the game doesn't change. I'm just trying to catch the ball and beat the guy to first. I also have a better understanding of not letting it spiral on me, when it's going bad, I can usually clean it up quicker now than I have in the past."

Tucker's performance at the plate propelled the Curve to a win late against the Erie Seawolves Saturday night.

"From where he's been the last two years, it's the same skills, but a better player. He's starting to understand situations better, he's starting to study the game in the dugout when he's not at the plate or out on defense," Altoona Curve manager Michael Ryan said of Tucker's growth at the plate.

That growth has led to a .256/.329/.346 line from the leadoff spot in the order and has Tucker setting minor league career highs in hits, total bases, runs, RBIs and doubles. While Tucker is on pace to set highs in triples and home runs, stolen bases is a category that hasn't quite equaled his previous seasons, but his improvement there has been noted by Ryan.

"He has an idea of when guys are going to pick over and when guys are going to the plate. It shows with his stolen bases," Ryan said. "He went the whole first month of the year without a stolen base, now he's close to 30. He's just grown a ton."

MORE ALTOONA

• Ke'Bryan Hayes has 14 hits and seven RBIs over his last 10 games, raising his season average to .290. The 21-year-old third baseman has a .911 OPS in 11 games in August and his two home runs matched his total from the two previous months combined. Hayes has a .825 OPS with seven home runs and 36 RBIs in 100 games this season.

• Will Craig leads the Eastern League with 91 RBIs and his 18 home runs rank third. Craig, a first-round draft pick in 2016, has 12 hits over his last 10 games and is batting .254 with a .790 OPS this season. He also has 108 strikeouts to 32 walks.

INDIANAPOLIS (AAA)

• Mitch Keller, the Pirates' top prospect, earned his first win at Triple-A with six strikeouts in six innings Thursday against Lehigh Valley. The 22-year-old allowed only one run on four hits and has pitched through the sixth inning in back-to-back games. He has a 6.67 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and 36 strikeouts to 16 walks in 29 2/3 innings for Indianapolis.

• J.T. Brubaker, a right-handed starting pitcher, has posted a 1.34 ERA with 28 strikeouts to three walks over his last five starts. Brubaker allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings Saturday against Pawtucket and has a 1.34 WHIP in 101 innings since being promoted to Indianapolis. He was drafted in the sixth round in 2015 out of the University of Akron.

• Kevin Kramer is batting .338 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs in 61 games since June 1. The left-handed hitting infielder has raised his season slash line to .301/.360/.481 with 29 doubles, 12 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 50 RBIs. He's hit safely in eight of his last nine games and is batting .377 when ahead in the count.

WEST VIRGINIA (LOW A)

• Oneil Cruz, the 19-year-old shortstop acquired from the Dodgers in the Tony Watson trade last season, is batting .289/.345/.492 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs in 102 games. He's struggled the past two months, batting .232 in July and has seven hits in 22 at-bats in August. While Cruz has a .375 average against lefties, he's batting .265 against right-handers for the West Virginia Power.

• Catcher Deon Stafford, a fifth-round draft pick last June, has 11 hits, including three home runs and 11 RBIs in his past 11 games. Stafford went 3 for 5 with six RBIs, a grand slam and a two-run double Saturday night against the Rome Braves. He's batting .266/.325/.439 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs in 75 games for the Power.

• Outfielder Lolo Sanchez has nine hits in his last 10 games and is batting .233/.310/.315 with 25 stolen bases in 94 games.

OTHERS

• Outfielder Travis Swaggerty, the Pirates' first-round pick in June, went 3 for 5 with two RBIs Saturday and has 12 hits in his last 10 games. Swaggerty, 20, is batting .281 with an .814 OPS, four home runs and 15 RBIs in 35 games for short-season West Virginia.

• Starting pitcher Shane Baz, the club's first-round pick last year, threw five scoreless innings with six strikeouts and one walk Saturday for short-season Bristol. Baz, 19, has a 3.97 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 54 strikeouts to 23 walks in 10 starts.

• Ji-Hwan Bae, a 19-year-old shortstop from South Korea, has 30 hits in 107 at-bats for the GCL Pirates, posting a .280/.370/.374 slash line in 29 games. Bae has 10 hits over his last 10 games and has 13 strikeouts to 13 walks.

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