UNIVERSITY PARK — The State College Spikes are alive and still thriving.
After knocking off the Jamestown Jammers 6-0 in Sunday’s series finale to advance to the New York-Penn League Championship Series, the team that says it plays its best loose and relaxed celebrated that way in the clubhouse at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
With black plastic covering the contents of lockers, bottles of sparkling juice popped and sprayed. Gatorade coolers were dumped on unsuspecting heads, and baby powder was strewn about like confetti.
After a quick team photo, right fielder Jimmy Bosco walked out of the clubhouse and with a dry wit typified the personality of this team: “OK, now what?”
Thanks to an excellent pitching performance from starter Andrew Pierce and some clutch hitting by David Washington, State College won Game 3 of the best-of-three series and heads to the title set against Tri-City beginning Tuesday at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y.
“Oh man, that (was) a big game,” said a drenched State College manager Oliver Marmol. “Emotions were running pretty high prior to that game … because you know if you win you keep going, you lose and you go home.”
Pierce (1-0) earned the win in his best start of the season. The eighth-round pick from Southern Mississippi threw seven innings of shutout baseball on four singles and tied a season-best with seven strikeouts.
No magic pregame routine steadied his nerves. Pierce’s recipe was much simpler.
“A lot of guys like to be on their head phones and not really talk to anybody,” he said. “But me, I’m kind of around talking, laid back. That’s how I have to be. If I try to get in the zone and listen to music I kind of blow it.”
Before Washington sparked the club offensively, Pierce came out firing strikes for a quick 1-2-3 first inning. The Jammers previously nabbed momentum with three runs in Game 1’s first inning and two more in Game 2.
Instead, the Spikes attacked early. After Cesar Valera singled with one out in the first, Washington sent a two-run home run over the fence in right on the first pitch he saw.
The big lefty entered the game hitting just .111 with two RBIs in his last 10 games. He was the only Spike with multiple hits and the homer was his first since Aug. 22 against Williamsport.
“It felt good to connect with one,” Washington said. “I’ve been struggling the last few games and I was just thinking be real aggressive. When you’re not swinging it well the best thing to do is start swinging a lot.”
Jamestown starter Cody Dickson (0-1) found trouble again after hitting Michael Schulze in the second and then gave up a single to Mason Katz. The left-hander did manage to limit the damage by getting Jimmy Bosco to ground into a double play, but Schulze scored to make it 3-0.
Jammers leader Dave Turgeon, the Spikes manager in 2012, was proud of his young team’s play and fight this season.
“Six teenagers in your lineup and I can’t be prouder (because) we were in position to do something special against a really good team,” Turgeon said.
Pierce maneuvered through a jam in the fourth with help from that Jamestown inexperience. After back-to-back singles started the inning, Pierce struck out first-round pick Austin Meadows swinging and then induced a pop fly to left from Edwin Espinal.
Harold Ramirez, 18, tagged and started to third as leftfielder Luis Perez hit the cutoff man Valera. Ramirez hit the brakes and retreated back to second but was thrown out by Valera.
“There’s a thing where with two outs the risk-reward on the play is not good,” Turgeon said. “So you stay there, but he was a little bit antsy and trying to make something happen.”
With opportunities sparse against Pierce, the play became more critical in the fifth when the Spikes struck again.
Bosco flipped a double down the line in left to start the frame, which was followed by a Perez double off the wall in right that scored Bosco and made it 4-0. Steven Ramos nearly caused more damage with a low, sinking liner to center, but Meadows made a nice feet-first sliding catch.
A batter later, Perez, 22, made a play that illustrated the age difference between the teams.
As a 2-1 pitch was delivered to Valera, Perez broke for third and kept motoring. When Dickson casually threw to first for the out, Perez sprinted home and beat the throw from Espinal to make it 5-0.
Meanwhile, Pierce continued to dominate on the mound.
“I think I told (pitching coach Dernier Orozco) about three weeks ago that I figured something out that got my slider working,” Pierce said.
His fastball-slider combination vexed hitters most of the night. The Jammers had just two opportunities with runners in scoring position all night.
The State College offense added the exclamation point in the eighth when Ramos tripled to start the inning off Henry Hirsch and was driven in by Washington with two outs.
Mitch Harris, the Spikes’ bullpen leader in ERA, finished the final two innings. He walked one and struck out two.
The Spikes and ValleyCats meet Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. Starters have not been named.
However sweet victory tasted Sunday night, Marmol knows the job will only be complete with two more wins.
“Absolutely,” Marmol said, “we have to shake hands two more times and then will talk again.”