UNIVERSITY PARK — A season full of records and firsts for the State College Spikes comes down to a best-of-three series with the Tri-City ValleyCats beginning at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday in the franchise’s first trip to the New York-Penn League Championship Series.
The teams return to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park for Game 2 on Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. If necessary, Game 3 also will be in town at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.
After spending 2007-2012 as a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, the Spikes have already set a franchise record for wins, won their first Pinckney Division title, led the league in both batting average and team ERA and had the best record in the league in their first season back with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Spikes Senior Vice President/General Manager Jason Dambach said it was around this time last year when the club was finalizing its decision to part ways with Pittsburgh.
When they eventually returned to the Cardinals, Dambach said there was never any pressure to win, but the Spikes knew St. Louis would bring a better brand of baseball.
“So the fact that we’ve had the best season in franchise history, won a division championship, reached the championship series and have an opportunity to win a championship in Year 1 of the partnership, that’s just the absolute cherry on top,” Dambach said.
Sunday’s 6-0 win over current Pirates affiliate Jamestown, led by former Spikes manager Dave Turgeon, gave State College a 2-1 series win and a shot at the title.
After the Jammers took Game 1 of the semifinal series, Spikes manager Oliver Marmol stressed the importance of getting off to a great start.
“It’s very important,” said Marmol, who in his first season and at just 27 years old has the most wins in team history.
“These guys have been in the position where they’ve lost Game 1 and know how to take on the pressure of having to win Games 2 and 3, but Game 1 is obviously very important for us.”
Arturo Reyes (1-2) will start Tuesday’s game for State College. Evan Grills (7-1) will go for the ValleyCats.
Reyes was a 40th-round draft pick in June and has a 2.08 ERA in seven starts this season. He also has yet to give up more than two runs in an appearance this season.
Pick No. 1,205 out of 1,216 selected in June, Reyes’ biggest strength according to Marmol is under his cap.
“Poise,” Marmol said. “The kid doesn’t get shaken up by anything … so having him go in Game 1, there’s no panic from anybody on our end.”
Reyes will mix a low-90s fastball with a slider that pitching coach Dernier Orozco believes is the right-hander’s best pitch. He will also utilize a circle change-up and split-finger fastball to keep batters off balance.
Grills, a 10th-round pick by the Houston Astros in 2010, is one of three NY-PL pitchers with seven wins this season (Kevin Herget went 7-0 for the Spikes).
The left-hander gave up two earned runs with six hits and two strikeouts in a no-decision against the Spikes on July 31.
In fact, State College swept the only three games against Tri-City this season. The ValleyCats batted just .216 and scored seven runs in the set. The Spikes batted .278 and scored 17 runs.
Mason Katz has led the Spikes in the playoffs thus far. The second baseman went 5-for-12 with five RBIs in three games with Jamestown.
However, as it has been all season, the strength of the club is the depth of its lineup.
David Washington, who set franchise records for single-season homers and RBIs, broke out of an 11-game slump Sunday with three RBIs and a home run.
And while Steven Ramos, the franchise’s first NY-PL batting champ, has gone 5-for-26 in his last six games, Michael Schulze has stepped up. Schulze, a 19th-round pick in June who played sparingly earlier this season, is 12-for-26 in his last 11 games.
Production like that from up and down the lineup is how the Spikes caught the Jammers in the standings back in August. It is also why Marmol’s strategic vision for his team hasn’t changed.
The focus has always been on executing their game plan first and believe that their best will be good enough against any opponent.
“It’s been that way the whole time,” Marmol said. “It was that way when we were four or five games behind Jamestown in the division and it was that way when they beat us in Game 1.
“We just stuck to what we know how to do. And if we do what we know how to do we usually come out on top.”