The New York-Penn League came down to one game, complete with all the tension that accompanies a nine-inning showdown to decide the season.
But despite the drama and anticipation that was building all afternoon, State College channeled that nervous energy and silenced the home crowd with a six-run first inning before their opponents even came to the plate. It didn't hurt that they had an extra special fan willing them to be successful Tuesday evening.
Staked to the early lead, Daniel Poncedeleon allowed three hits and a walk while striking out five batters over six scoreless innings and batterymate Luis Cruz plated three runs as the short-season Spikes routed the host Tri-City ValleyCats, 11-2, to clinch their first New York-Penn League championship.
"That was a great game and a great series," Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said. "They did a nice job all year and we competed against them in the same situation last year. It was a good battle tonight. Getting on the board early was what we stressed before the game and we came out hot."
The victory helped the Cardinals affiliate avenge last year's Finals loss to the ValleyCats and means they will bring the trophy back to Pennsylvania for the first time in their nine-year existence.
The win was extra special for Marmol and his club considering their special inspiration in the dugout. Josiah Viera, 10, was the honorary bench coach for the Spikes this summer. Viera suffers from a rare disorder called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria which results in premature aging and for which there is no cure.
Viera cheered the team on throughout the series and he got hugged and high-fived in front of the mound as the Spikes formed a dogpile. During the trophy presentation, the team formed a semicircle around the youngster, with Viera front and central next to the hardware.
"He is a big reason why we're here," Marmol said. "He gave us a lot of motivation. A lot of the guys, if not all of the guys, wanted to go out and win it for him."
"It's indescribable," added reliever Kyle Grana. "It's amazing, it really is amazing. There are days where you're sore and tired and playing, but seeing him smiling and running around every day makes you want to play that much more."
In front of 2,652 fans in Troy, New York, the Spikes took the air out of The Joe right away, sending 10 men to the plate and scoring six runs in the top of the first. Nick Thompson got the scoring underway with a two-run homer, Alex De Leon crossed the plate on Derek Fisher's fielding error in left field and Cruz doubled home a fourth run three batters later. Brett Wiley followed with an RBI triple and he came home to score the sixth run on Robert Kahana's wild pitch.
Adam Ehrlich drove home Danny Diekroeger with a two-out single in the fourth. The Spikes added four more runs in the sixth on Ehrlich's bases-loaded walk, Cruz's two-run single and a ball hit by Robelys Reyes that resulted in a fielding error by third baseman Kristian Trompiz.
The ValleyCats pulled a pair of runs back in the seventh off reliever Josh Lucas, but Nick Lomascolo worked around a walk in the eighth and Grana struck out the side in the ninth to lock down the victory and set off wild celebrations on the infield.
"Going into the ninth inning needing three outs and having a nine-run lead, you're feeling pretty good," Marmol said. "It was a great feeling and it was exciting. Not one guy carried the team, it was all teamwork. Each guy played their part and had their role."
The Spikes, who wore their "lucky" red alternate jerseys throughout the entire Championship Series, went 48-28 in the regular season to seal the New York-Penn League's Pinckney Division and claim a share of the circuit's best record with the ValleyCats. They led the league with a team .269 average, 55 homers, 357 RBIs and 398 runs scored. On the mound, State College ranked second with a 2.97 ERA and third with 644 strikeouts.
State College matched a club record with 48 wins in the regular season and St. Louis' No. 17 prospect Rowan Wick smashed the single-season home run mark with 14 blasts in just 35 games with the Spikes.
Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB.