By Jim Lane
CURVE, Pa. — It was only a spring training game, but you can bet Altoona Curve outfielder Willy Garcia won’t soon forget Thursday night March 19, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
With the largest crowd in the 93-year history of McKechnie Field on hand, Garcia was a late-inning replacement for the Pirates in a Grapefruit League game against the Detroit Tigers. It was the Bucs’ only night game of the 2015 spring training season and was televised back to Pittsburgh by ROOT Sports.
Garcia came to bat in the ninth, with the Pirates trailing, and promptly crushed a game-winning homer over the left-center fence.
“It was very exciting,” Garcia, through interpreter Miguel Perez, said recently at Peoples Natural Gas Field. “There were a lot of people there — a really big crowd.
“It was like a big-league environment and I couldn’t have felt more happy with everything that happened, especially the homer run.”
Only 22 years old, the young Domincan could have a big future with the Pirates. He’s on the organization’s 40-man roster and got a good look this past spring, appearing in several major league games.
“It was my first big-league camp,” Garcia said. “and one of my dreams was to spend time with (Gregory) Polanco, (Andrew) McCutchen, (Starling) Marte, (Jose) Tabata) — all those big-league stars.
“Being in that environment inspired me to work harder,” he continued. “The manager (Clint Hurdle) helped me a lot, too.”
Garcia spent all of 2014 with the Curve and had a solid season — batting .271 in 126 games with 18 homers and 63 RBIs. He was the starting left fielder for the Western Division in the Eastern League All-Star Game, which was hosted by the Curve.
In the “Ghostman Games and Hitting Challenge” which was held a night prior to the All-Star Game, Garcia was the hitting start and led the Western Division to victory by scoring 13 runs in a 22-21 win.
:It was a great experience,” Garcia said. “I’m not going to lie — I was nervous at the beginning. The All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but after I hit thefirst one, I knew I was going to do good.
Rated by Baseball America as having the “Best Outfield Arm” in the Pirate organization, the 6-2, 218-pound Garcia set a franchise outfield assist record last season with 19, breaking Marte’s mark by one.
“If I had to choose between hitting a home run or throwing someone out at home, I’d choose throwing someone out,” Garcia said, laughing. “Sometimes runners challenge me to throw them out and I feel very good about that.”
Garcia said he’s always had a strong arm and actually pitched some as a youngster. He also played the infield, but after returning from injury, was moved to the outfield.
With the offensive numbers he put up a year ago, many people thought Garcia might be promoted to Triple-A this season, but Garcia insists he’s not disappointed to be back in Altoona because he realized it was for the best.
“They sent me back here to learn more,” he said. “I came here to wrok hard because the ultimate goal is to get to the big leagues. I want to maximize my work ethic to get there.
“I feel very good playing here,” Garcia said of Altoona. “A lot of people here support me.”
Curve manager Tom Prince managed Garcia at Bradenton (High-A) a couple years ago and recalled the young outfielder was with a group that included Polanco and Alen Hanson in the Florida State League.
“He was very impressive, and still is,” Prince said. “He’s got the tools – a stop arm in the outfield and unlimited power potential. And he runs a lot better than people think he does.
“I had the opportunity to play with Raul Mondesi (in the big leagues) and Willy reminds me a lot of him. A lot of guys have the arm, but not the accuracy, and that’s where he reminds me of Mondesi the most.
“He’s really growing and I look for a lot of good things from him this year.”