During each day of State College’s semifinal series, Spikes manager Oliver Marmol reminded starting pitcher Trey Nielsen of the team’s plan for the championship.
Nielsen would get the ball in Game 1.
The right-hander watched as teammates Will Anderson and Fernando Baez each fired gems to help lead second-seeded State College past Hudson Valley and into the best-of-three New York-Penn League Championship series to face top-seeded Tri-City.
On Sunday, it was Nielsen’s turn to lead another stellar effort on the mound as four pitchers combined on a two-hitter in the Spikes’ 2-0 win over the ValleyCats in Game 1 at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Nielsen threw six shutout innings, allowing one hit and two walks to earn the win.
“It was really awesome for us to get here,” Nielsen said. “And it was fun to be out there tonight.”
The Spikes can clinch the title with a win in Game 2, set for Monday at 7 p.m. at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y. If necessary, Tri-City will host Game 3 on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Nielsen had a no-hitter through five innings and finished with four strikeouts Sunday. State College relievers Brandon Lee, Josh Lucas and Kyle Grana each threw one scoreless inning to seal the win.
Grana picked up the save.
The teams combined for just five hits in a pitcher’s duel, with State College scoring both runs on the only two extra-base hits in the game.
“It was a really tough game,” Marmol said. “That’s playoff baseball right there. Those guys pitched really well, so did we. We came up on top today.”
State College took control in the bottom of the second inning.
With Jake Stone on first, State College catcher Luis Cruz sent a fly ball toward right-center field.
Tri-City center fielder Jason Martin, trying to shield the sun with his glove, got a late jump and had the tailing fly ball graze off his glove in the right-center gap.
Stone scored easily, and Cruz rolled around to third base with a triple.
State College pushed its lead to 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth on Alex De Leon’s double lined off the right field wall.
That proved to be plenty of support for Nielsen, who relied on his fastball to get through six scoreless innings.
“I didn’t have my curveball, which I usually do,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t throw more than two changeups tonight. Location of my fastball was everything. I was able to work my game off of that and have success with it.”
Nielsen held Tri-City hitless until Martin singled to left field to leadoff the sixth.
The State College pitching staff has fueled the run through the postseason, combining to hold Hudson Valley and Tri-City to just one run combined in three straight wins.
And Nielsen was confident after turning it over to the bullpen for the final three innings.
“If I can go do my job out there, I know they’re going to come and shut the door,” Nielsen said. “It’s a strong confidence factor in our pitching staff.”
Lee pitched a scoreless seventh. Lucas then worked out of a jam to preserve State College’s 2-0 lead in the eighth.
ValleyCats catcher Alfredo Gonzalez laid a bunt down the third base line and advanced to second on a throwing error by Cruz. After a groundout, Lucas recorded back-to-back strikeouts to leave Gonzalez stranded on third.
Marmol turned to Grana for the ninth.
“When you go into the playoffs, you start to think about a little bit less rest,” Marmol said. “And the guys that got you here, you ride them out to the end and that situation, we just thought the matchups were good for Lucas and then Grana.”
Lucas earned the save in State College’s first win over Hudson Valley, and Grana saved Game 3 to send the Spikes to the championship.
The hard-throwing right-hander got the job done again Sunday, getting a groundout with the fans on their feet to complete the two-hitter and move the Spikes one win away from the title.
“I have confidence in the entire team and I feel like they have confidence in me,” Grana said. “So it’s one of those things, being a competitor, you want the ball, you want to be pitching in big-time situations and I love it.”