STATE COLLEGE — Something special could be brewing in State College.
It’s not just that the Little Lions earned a ninth consecutive baseball victory with a thrilling 9-7 comeback against Central Mountain on Friday.
It’s also the manner of victory that portends well for the future, and State College hopes, for the playoffs.
“A game like that, yeah, you don’t win those games typically,” said head coach Bill Tussey. “I give the guys credit. They didn’t give up. They just kept pushing.”
Led on Senior Day by the relief pitching of Dan Fry, the astute hitting of Jason Costa and the timely knocks and defensive acrobatics of Tanner Witter, State College (13-4) looks poised for a deep playoff run.
Despite six errors in the field, the Little Lions overcame an early 4-0 deficit and the broad-shouldered, strong-armed pitching of the Wildcats’ Von Walker.
The defense may have fallen apart later, but it started well when the Wildcats’ Dylan Kerstetter slapped State College starter Scout Droske’s second pitch to right.
Witter (3-for-3, two runs, RBI), a senior, tracked the ball to the line and dove head first to make the catch, his first of two sensational catches.
He ended a Wildcat threat in the second with another diving catch and also fell just a home run short of the cycle.
“He’s an aggressive kid, Tussey said. “And if you make a mistake on a fastball … he just loves to eat up that fastball.”
However, State College’s defense would evenutally collapse in the third.
Three errors helped Central Mountain put four on the board in an inning that saw nine Wildcats bat and also saw Droske chased.
Fry (3-0), a senior who has been stellar in relief this season, worked out of a one-out jam to hold the fort.
Meanwhile, Walker, who took his first loss of the season, was cruising.
Walker worked quickly, wasting little time between pitches of which the senior needed just six for a 1-2-3 first.
In the second, he started Darian Herncane (1-for-3, RBI) with two knee-buckling curveballs, while Costa (3-for-4) watched intently on deck.
Walker survived the third pitch, an inside fastball that Herncane belted just foul to the softball field’s backstop some 300-plus feet away, to catch the senior looking with another curve.
Costa then fell behind 0-2 but stepped out of the box to slow Walker down. He delivered the first of 11 State College hits two pitches later.
“(Walker) has a pretty good curve ball and he was getting into a really good rhythm and as a batter I wanted to get him out of that rhythm,” Costa said.
The Little Lions would finally break through with three in the fourth after Central Mountain’s defense made two critical errors.
However, more sloppy errors by State College gave back the momentum and three more runs in the fifth.
They trailed 7-3 in the bottom half and then 7-4 when they came back up in the pivotal sixth.
The Lions would hang five in the inning, started by Costa’s leadoff triple. Eleven would bat in the inning.
Ryan Karstetter (1-for-1, two RBIs), who didn’t start on Senior Day, hit the key pinch-hit single that plated two for an 8-7 State College lead.
Then Witter finished off Walker with an RBI-double to left-center that forced Michael Kramer to remove his pitcher.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Kramer, the Wildcats head coach. “He’s a competitor and he battles. He just wants the ball and things just didn’t work out for him today. Defensively, that was one of the keys to the game.”
A few controversial calls didn’t help either. Kramer walked onto the field twice to converse with umpires, but wouldn’t make any excuses after the game.
“We can only control what we can do, so that’s our lesson,” Kramer said. “No matter what happens we can’t change it.”
State College entered the seventh with what looked like a beleaguered Fry on the mound in the sixth. Tussey visited with his senior in that frame but didn’t make a change.
The southpaw has been a human suture on the mound during the winning streak that began with a quality relief appearance in State College’s 17-8 comeback win at Mifflin County.
His three wins, all during the streak, have all come in come-from-behind relief appearances.
Popping the State College radar gun at 76-78 all game, he hit 81 in the seventh, starting the inning with back-to-back strikeouts.
“Every now and then you run across that athlete that just rises to the occasion when the pressure gets on a little bit,” said Tussey of Fry. “He seems to be able to keep the nerves under control and just compete.”
The victory sets up an important game for State College on Tuesday when it travels to Red Land, the last team to beat the Little Lions.
Confidence shouldn’t be a problem. Or at least Tussey hopes not.
“I would hope this win gives us confidence,” Tussey said. “Certainly it should. Especially since defensively we just, quite frankly, didn’t play a sharp ballgame …
The confidence level should be pretty high now.”