UNIVERSITY PARK — With the flags in left-center field flapping in the sixth inning, State College’s Mason Katz stepped to the plate with Ronald Castillo at second, and the Spikes trailing the Lowell Spinners 2-1.
Lowell’s young left-hander Daniel McGrath had been cruising to that point, but a hanging change-up to Katz changed everything.
“I was able to put a good swing on it,” Katz said. “The wind was howling out and I hit it high enough to where it carried it a few extra feet.”
The two-run home run — and a late insurance run — propelled State College to a 4-2 win in front of 3,009 at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park on Friday night.
Carson Kelly had a game-high three hits. Castillo went 2-for-4. Katz (2-for-4) had a game-high two RBIs. Kelly now has nine hits in his last four games. Steven Ramos, who now leads the New York-Penn League in batting (.421), went hitless, ending his 12-game hit streak. Katz now has multi-hit games in three of his last four.
State College (16-14) certainly produced offensively, but it was a bend-but-don’t-break performance from its pitching staff that kept the game close.
Juan Bautista (1-2) got the win. Relievers Kyle Webb, Mitch Harris and Jeff Rauh each flirted with danger, but ultimately escaped unscathed. Rauh earned his second save.
McGrath (0-1), a 19-year-old lefty from Australia and a prospect to watch in the Boston Red Sox system, took the loss.
Bautista struggled mightily in the first inning, but eventually found a rhythm for his first victory and longest start this season.
The 20-year-old right-hander threw eleven consecutive balls in the first and even elicited a cheer when a fastball finally broke the streak.
After escaping the first with just one run, Bautista found trouble again when Lowell’s Jose Colorado crushed a fastball over the fence in the second to give the Spinners a 2-0 lead.
Similar mistakes earlier this season led to a loss of confidence for the righty and big innings for opponents. Friday night however, he recovered.
“That’s the one thing with him that we’ve been trying to stress,” Spikes’ manager Oliver Marmol said. “When they score runs (they) come in bunches (against) Bautista. Just trying to work on limiting damage. And he was able to regroup today, which is something we haven’t seen in prior starts. He showed some mental toughness.”
Bautista pitched a season-high six innings. He gave up just three hits, two runs, struck out six and survived four walks.
“I didn’t give up,” he said. “I got stronger. I was not trying to give up (anymore) runs. After I gave up that home run I thought ‘ok, no more.”’
Webb also teetered on the brink. The side-arm slinging right-hander gave up a leadoff double to Carlos Asuaje in the seventh followed by a Cleuluis Rondon single. The 32nd-round pick in 2013 helped his cause with a strikeout and then got some help from two nice defensive plays from Castillo in left.
Harris also gave up back-to-back hits when he entered in the eighth. He escaped with a strikeout followed by a great backhand stab from Trevor Martin at first to end the inning.
Not to be outdone, Rauh allowed a Rondon double to start the ninth followed by a walk and wild pitch that moved runners to the corners with no outs. The right-hander used back-to-back strikeouts and then a ground out to end the game and set his manager’s heart at ease.
“That’s an understatement,” Marmol said. “Definitely some nerves out there, but they showed some toughness. All three of them put themselves into jams. All three showed mental toughness (too).”
After 30 games the Spikes are tied with Batavia (16-14) and Williamsport (16-14) for second place in the NY-PL behind first-place Jamestown (18-12).
Another three-game set begins Saturday at 7:05 p.m. when the Connecticut Tigers (Detroit Tigers) send right-hander Buck Farmer (0-1) to the mound. State College will go with the “piggyback” tandem of left-hander Chase Brookshire (0-0) and right-hander Kevin Herget (3-0).