UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s Sunday inside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park as stadium staffers work diligently to prepare for the State College Spikes Monday opener against the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Kegs filled with an as yet unconfirmed liquid wheel in on dollies, as men ascend on hydraulic lifts, affixing signage for maximum visibility, while two staffers power wash blemishes from the concrete around stadium seating.
On the field, a similar beautification ritual occurs as Spikes manager Oliver Marmol leads his team through drills, hoping repetition will help his players avoid a common Opening Day danger.
“To not freak out,” said Spikes third baseman Carson Kelly with a smile. “It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time you have to control yourself…”
That’s what Kelly, 18, said he learned from his first opening day experience. The Portland, Ore. native is currently the Spikes’ youngest player, but played with the Johnson City Cardinals in 2012 after being drafted out of Westview High School in the second round that year.
The 7:05 p.m. first pitch will be the Spikes first as a Cardinals affiliate since the inaugural 2006 season, the clubs only winning record in the New York-Penn League.
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran, had to wait five years for a shot or are playing professionally for the first time, the key to wrangling opening day jitters is to rely on the hundreds of repetitions logged in practice.
“There’s going to be emotions, guys are going to be nervous,” said Marmol Sunday at the team’s media day. “They’re going to want to do more than they’re capable of doing but you just try to let them know it’s the same game, just a couple more people in the stands. Nothing to it. Just go about it like you do your normal work.”
Juan Bautista will start on the mound for the Spikes. The newly 20-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic celebrated a birthday on Sunday, as did teammate Ronald Castillo.
Bautista, an international free agent signee in 2010, said he’d approach the game like any other, although he’s certainly excited to have earned the start.
“I can’t even explain it,” he said. “A special feeling. I’m proud of being that guy and I’m just looking forward (to it).”
Mitch Harris, 27, has been looking forward to this day for years. The 13th round pick in 2008 from the U.S. Naval Academy is coming off a nearly five-year active-duty military commitment.
He is an imposing 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-handed reliever with Popeye-sized forearms who recently joked he’d do anything for a shot at the major leagues — even “wear a few” as catcher if need be.
“For me, especially I can’t even put into words how anxious I am and looking forward to getting out on the field and playing again,” Harris said.
He ranks first and second in single-season strikeouts per nine innings in Navy history and set a Patriot League record with 119 strikeouts in 2007.
If Harris had to wait patiently for his shot, Jimmy Reed’s journey has been quite the opposite.
Reed, 22, from Gaithersburg, Md., said he was drafted in the sixth round (185 overall) last Friday, got a call that weekend to head to State College by Tuesday and signed Wednesday.
“It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind the past couple days but I’m just really excited to get going,” said Reed, who was also drafted by the New York Yankees in the 21st round in 2012.
The 6-foot lefty from the University of Maryland said he’s slated to start in Wednesday’s series finale with the Crosscutters and that his parents plan to make the trip.
David Washington, 22, made the trek cross-country from San Diego, Calif. to get here. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound slugger hit nine home runs for the Batavia Muckdogs in 2012, tied for third-best in the NY-PL.
He also led all Appalachian League first basemen in fielding in 2011 with Johnson City. Washington said his first opening day was in the Gulf Coast League so there weren’t many fans, but opening day in Johnson City was different.
“(That was) my first time playing in front of a large crowd,” Washington said. “I was very nervous. It was a tough day to get through …”
Day one nerves might be easier to navigate for a few Spikes who have already gotten to know their manager from Johnson City.
The 26-year-old manager made his managerial debut there in 2012. Bautista, Kelly, Castillo, Victor DeLeon, Willy Paulino, Jeff Rauh, Trevor Martin and Cesar Valera all played for Marmol there.
Valera, 20, from Venezuela, was an international free agent signee in 2008 and figures to start at shortstop for the Spikes.
With Marmol translating, Valera said he is known for his ability to make routine and spectacular defensive plays and hopes to continue strengthening that part of his game.
It’s that mindset of development first that Marmol thinks can also turn into victories this season.
“In that same order,” he said. “Our responsibility here is to develop players and if we do it correctly and these guys go about their work the way we expect them too, at the end of the year we’ll see where we’re at, but it’s usually a pretty good deal.”
Notes: Penn State wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson will throw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch at approximately 6:40 p.m. The first 2,500 fans will receive a Spikes schedule and car magnet presented by PSECU.