It’s been nearly seven months since the college baseball season began.
Professional careers, for some State College Spikes, started in June, beginning a nearly three-month grind playing baseball day in and day out.
There were long road trips, slumps and hot streaks, and fatigue set in.
But the second-seeded Spikes are energized to go after the New York-Penn League championship, starting the title series against top-seeded Tri-City at 6:05 p.m. Sunday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
“We’ve come this far,” outfielder Nick Thompson said, grinning Friday night after State College beat Hudson Valley to clinch a spot in the finals. “What’s another three or four days to us?”
Trey Nielsen (3-2, 2.50) will get the start for the Spikes on Sunday, while Brandon McNitt (2-1, 2.78) is set to pitch for Tri-City.
The series is a rematch of last year’s championship won by the ValleyCats. Tri-City will host Game 2 of the series Monday at 7 p.m. If necessary, Game 3 will also be at Tri-City on Tuesday.
It’s a matchup of teams that finished tied for the best record in the league at 48-28 during the regular season. Tri-City took two out of three from the Spikes to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker and the top seed.
“Good team, good pitching, good hitting,” Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said. “No different than us. Let’s go at it.”
State College finished the season leading the New York-Penn League in batting average (.269), runs scored (398) and RBIs (357). The Spikes also finished second in the league in team ERA (2.97). Tri-City ranked third in hitting (.262), second in runs (355) and second in RBIs (318). The ValleyCats’ pitching staff was fifth with a 3.42 ERA.
Nielsen has been one of the Spikes’ top pitchers all season.
The right-hander moved into the rotation in July and has made eight starts, allowing 11 earned runs in 32 2/3 innings. McNitt pitched two scoreless innings of relief in Tri-City’s 12-2 win over State College on July 20. He’s made just three starts this season, with his last coming July 25, when he allowed five runs in three innings against Staten Island.
Austin Gomber is set to start Game 2 for the Spikes. The left-hander threw 14 scoreless innings to earn two wins over Williamsport in his final two starts of the season.
“We’re going to have our best guys going on the mound,” Thompson said. “And we’re definitely going to have our heads right and just look forward to jump ahead, take Game 1 and then just worry about winning one out of two at their place.”
Marmol has said this is as confident as he’s been in the postseason in his career.
He’s praised this group for its mental toughness, which was on display in State College’s 2-1 win over Hudson Valley to set up the championship rematch with Tri-City.
The Spikes scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to rally for the win.
And coming off the thrilling comeback, Thompson said he’s not feeling any fatigue after starting his college season in February and getting his introduction to professional baseball this summer.
“I definitely think this win here and kind of just seeing what we’re capable of,” Thompson said, “if anything just picks us up a little bit more and just gives us that edge to win.”
Since the calendar flipped to August, State College had an eye on postseason play.
That’s when they started talking about being ready for the playoffs and chasing the four wins needed to win the title.
The Spikes clinched the Pinckney Division and closed the regular season by winning 15 of their final 18 games to tie Tri-City for the top record.
Now, State College is two wins from finishing the season with a championship.
“I’m going to give everything I got and just see what happens,” Spikes second baseman Darren Seferina said.
Thompson and his teammates are hoping to have some new jewelry to commemorate their season.
Said Thompson: “We just got to get that ring and finish a strong season.”