Free food is fantastic. Everyone can agree on that.
The prospect of getting a free Big Mac has been, for six years now, the most exciting part of the game for many fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The Curve's wildly popular "McDonald's Strikeout Guy" promotion usually leads to the biggest cheers of the night, or the biggest groans - a distinctly collective "awwwww" from thousands of disappointed fans - if the batter doesn't strike out.
Fans' appetites are on the line when the strikeout guy gets to two strikes, but rarely is the game ever on the line, too.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Drew Maggi holds the ball up after tagging Michael Taylor.
It made for a comical and entertaining scene Saturday night, then, when the perfect storm of baseball and burger met up in the eighth inning of the Curve's game against Harrisburg.
Altoona held a three-run lead, but the Senators had the bases loaded with two outs when the pre-selected "strikeout guy" Brian Jeroloman came up to the plate.
"After the second strike, the crowd got super pumped up and it was abnormally loud," Curve reliever Jason Townsend said with a laugh. "I looked up, and I saw the McDonald's sign (on the videoboard)."
Townsend, in his third season with the Curve, certainly knew what that meant.
So, with the game hanging in the balance, he stepped off the mound, grabbed the rosin bag, toed the rubber and fired a high strike past a swinging Jeroloman to end the inning.
Now, under most baseball scenarios, a loud crowd ovation would have been expected since that strikeout essentially sealed the Curve's 7-4 win.
Throw in the fact that it also meant a free Big Mac for the 4,613 fans - redeemable at local McDonald's locations with the purchase of any menu item - and it brought about a huge eruption from the crowd.
Trying to guess how many fans were cheering getting out of the jam or cheering for the free burger is a valid question. But let's be honest, this is the minor leagues, so it was probably 90-10 in favor of the free food.
Townsend acknowledged the Curve players do get a kick out of how loud the crowd gets for the burger promotion.
"We do laugh about it," he said. "We always try to strike out the guy, and sometimes we all think we might get the burger as well. It's funny to see the crowd get that excited for a Big Mac."
The Curve haven't kept track of how frequently fans have gotten a free burger with the strikeout guy going down since 2009, but it's at least 50 percent of the games, if not much higher. The promotion had been for a free Big Mac with no purchase for the past five years, but it changed this season to where now fans must make a purchase to also get the burger.
Curve manager Carlos Garcia said he was squarely focused on getting out of the eighth inning jam with the game on the line, but even he admitted the crowd's reaction to the strikeout guy gimmick is noticeable.
"It's also a burger," Garcia said with a smile. "Definitely it's fun."
The manager had fun watching his team put a big number on the board in the first inning, scoring five runs to take control. The Curve not only went on to their fourth straight win - one short of a season high - they also beat Harrisburg for the seventh consecutive time.
"We picked up where we left off (Friday) night with the momentum," Garcia said. "It keeps the momentum and keeps our confidence up high."
Alen Hanson led off the Curve first with a homer, and Keon Broxton roped a two-run double as the home team built a 5-1 lead against Senators starter Zach Kroenke (2-2). Broxton later ripped a solo homer in the fourth to help Altoona make it 7-1.
Curve starter Joan Montero (3-3) turned in his best performance of the season, giving up just one run on four hits in six innings for the win.
Harrisburg scored three runs off reliever Quinton Miller in the seventh, and Miller ran into trouble in the eighth, putting two runners on with two outs.
Townsend came in and walked the first batter to load the bases. But he bounced back by fanning Jeroloman to pick up Miller, end the inning and, of course, send the fans home knowing they can pick up their tasty treat at a local restaurant.
"That's one thing I take a lot of responsibility in as a pitcher coming out of the bullpen when another pitcher gets in trouble is to pick him up, get him out of that situation, as well as get your team out of that situation," said Townsend, who also pitched the ninth to earn his first save.
Home plate umpire Blake Felix suffered a right hand injury when a pitch bounced up and hit him in the top of the third inning. He was removed from the game and was taken to the hospital for X-rays. His status was not known after the game. The remaining two umps handled things the rest of the way. RHP John Holdzkom, who recently joined the team after being signed out of an independent league, was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Saturday. Holdzkom allowed only one hit and no runs in six innings with the Curve.
SUBHD: Game recap
Key player: CF Keon Broxton went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs.
Key play: The Curve scored five runs in the first inning, jumpstarted by SS Alen Hanson's leadoff homer.
Key stat: The Curve (33-54) and Harrisburg (33-53) have the two worst records in the Eastern League, but Altoona has beaten the Senators seven straight times.
SUBHD: How they scored
Top 1st: Taylor doubled, scored on Skole single (0-1).
Bottom 1st: Hanson solo homer (1-1); Maggi singled, scored on Skole error (2-1) that allowed Garcia to reach; Allie walked, scored along with Garcia on Broxton double (4-1); Brown single scored Broxton (5-1).
Bottom 4th: Broxton solo homer (6-1); Brown singled, scored on Diaz groundout (7-1).
Top 7th: Martinson reached on fielder's choice, scored on Sanchez single (7-2); Jeroloman walked, scored along with Sanchez on Latimore triple (7-4).