UNIVERSITY PARK — Standing in the clubhouse lounge, Spikes manager Oliver Marmol addressed his players soaked from their postgame celebration Friday night.
The ceiling dripped above them as a pool of sparking grape juice and cider formed on the plastic covering the floor.
As Marmol spoke, State College pitching coach Dernier Orozco dumped icy Gatorade on the manager, eliciting a roar out of the players fresh off their 2-1 victory over Hudson Valley to clinch a spot in the New York-Penn League championship series.
The second-seeded Spikes will face top-seeded Tri-City in a rematch of last year’s championship won by the ValleyCats. Tri-City swept Connecticut in its semifinal series.
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State College will host Game 1 at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park at 6:05 p.m. Sunday.
The Spikes fell behind 1-0 in the first inning and managed just three hits through seven innings before rallying for two runs to pull out the win. State College won the final two games of the best-of-three series against the Renegades to keep its championship hopes alive.
“When you’re down, your back’s against the wall two days in a row, it’s stressful and you go to sleep thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it and you know what’s at stake,” Marmol said. “But you embrace it and you enjoy it. And that’s what these guys have done. They’ve embraced competition, they’ve embraced having their backs against the wall.”
State College starting pitcher Fernando Baez was dominant in 5 1/3 innings, striking out 10 to tie the Spikes’ record set by teammate Will Anderson in June.
State College reliever Nick Lomascolo threw one scoreless inning to pick up the win. Kyle Grana struck out two in a perfect ninth for the save.
The lone run Baez allowed was unearned, coming after two errors on one play in the top of the first inning.
Renegades center fielder Braxton Lee led off with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Baez then made a pickoff throw high off shortstop Robelys Reyes’ glove and into center field.
Lee dove back into second and hesitated before taking off for third. State College center fielder Jhohan Acevedo’s throw bounced through the infield dirt and rolled to the Hudson Valley dugout, allowing Lee to score to put the Renegades up 1-0.
“As a young pitcher, as a young player at this level, it’s tough to put that behind you because you feel the first team that scores is going to continue to,” Marmol said. “And he put it behind him and just started striking people out nonstop.”
Baez picked up back-to-back strikeouts on breaking balls to leave Hudson Valley’s Bralin Jackson stranded on third in the second inning.
He then struck out the side in the third and added his sixth straight strikeout to start the fourth. His record-tying 10th strikeout, sending the Renegades’ Alec Sole back to the dugout, ended the fifth inning.
State College had just two hits at that point, a single by Reyes in the second and a leadoff double by Nick Thompson in the fourth. The Spikes added their third on a single by Brian O’Keefe in the bottom of the fifth.
Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Spikes had four errors and three hits.
But State College still trailed 1-0.
“To lose by one run is kind of sad because you had the opportunity to score some runs,” State College’s Darren Seferina said. “But I led off the inning with a base hit to center field and that got us going.”
The Spikes’ comeback started with Seferina’s single to center field.
It continued with the help of Hudson Valley mistakes.
Danny Diekroeger dropped a bunt down the third base line, and a throwing error by Renegades third baseman Coty Blanchard moved Seferina to third.
“Once they missed the bunt, you can tell the pressure was on and it was the breaking point at some point,” Marmol said. “That’s exactly what happened. That’s a very good team in that clubhouse, I’ll tell you that. They played us tough every single game of the season.”
With the pressure on the Renegades mounting, Thompson sent a ground ball to Sole at shortstop. Seferina scored. Sole made an errant throw to second base, allowing Diekroeger to move to third.
The game was tied. The go-ahead run stood on third base with no outs.
A walk loaded the bases.
And with one out and the infield in, Reyes sent a high chopper to shortstop, giving Sole no other option than to take the out at first.
Thompson scored the go-ahead run, and Grana closed it out to start the celebration on the field.
“We just never panic and we hit some balls hard in the early innings and they just didn’t fall for us,” Thompson said. “And we just kept grinding and we found a way to get it done in the eighth.”