IUP baseball needed this.
The Crimson Hawks’ season has been a rollercoaster ride full of ups and downs. IUP started off the season with a pair of wins over nationally ranked East Stroudsburg before enduring a nine-game losing streak from Feb. 24 to March 14. The Hawks then started out 6-2 in PSAC West play before losing seven of their next eight division games.
This left IUP teetering on the edge of the playoff picture entering a crucial four-game series with Pitt-Johnstown last week. After splitting a doubleheader with the Mountain Cats on the road on Thursday, the Hawks outscored Pitt-Johnstown 29-8 and blasted nine total home runs in two home games on Friday, beginning with an 18-5 win followed by an 11-3 victory in the nightcap.
“We needed that, we needed an outpour,” said standout Markus Cestra (fifth year, business management). “It was just a matter of time of when it would happen, and I think it happened at a really good time.”
IUP trailed 4-0 in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Dougherty Field, allowing all four runs in the second inning. The deficit was short-lived however, and the Hawks rattled off five runs in the bottom half of the second to give them a 5-4 lead. IUP added two runs in the fourth, three in the fifth and a staggering eight in the bottom of the sixth for an 18-5 advantage.
“The last couple games, days, weeks, we’ve been kind of cold as a unit,” said Peyton Johnson (sophomore, criminology), who hit three homers in Friday’s twinbill. “We’ve been working really hard in the cage during the weeks. Our mid-weeks have been a lot better in terms of hitting and it’s been a testament to our coaching.”
IUP’s 18 runs was a season high and the Hawks’ most in a game since April 20 of last year, when they scorched Kutztown 26-1. It was certainly an encouraging sign for an offense that had struggled in recent weeks. In their 10 previous PSAC West games prior to Friday, the Crimson Hawks scored a total of 30 runs for an average of 3.0 per game. Furthermore, they scored more than three runs only three times in that stretch.
IUP knocked four home runs — two by Johnson and one apiece by Cestra and David Kessler (freshman, general management) — and seven different Hawks collected at least one RBI.
“If hitters do their job, it’s a lot easier for pitchers to do their job,” Cestra said. “That’s what we have to do. The pitchers have been helping us out a lot this year but now it’s time for the hitters to step up.”
Jimmy Tooley (sophomore, computer science) got the nod on the mound in Friday’s opener, but after giving up four earned runs on five hits in just 1.2 innings, IUP coach Steve Kline was forced to call on his bullpen early.
Sebastian Rosado-Guindin (freshman, safety science) relieved Tooley in the second inning and pitched a hitless 1 1-3 innings to earn the win, his first of the season. Sean Furlong (fifth year, safety, health and environmental sciences) followed with a scoreless fourth inning before getting in a bases-loaded jam in the fifth and IUP leading 7-4.
Jason Madrak (freshman, economics) relieved Furlong and induced a key double play to limit the damage to one run, which was charged to Furlong. Madrak pitched the final three innings and retired all eight batters he faced.
“Sebastian came in, did his job. Madrak came in and got a huge double play, which killed a rally,” Kline said. “We scored runs, and then you don’t have to sit there and nail-bite the whole time.”
Many Hawks impressed in the batter’s box. Whether it was Cestra with four RBIs, Johnson with his pair of homers, Harrison Pontoli (senior, finance) going 3-for-5, or Torrey Roper (senior, communications media), who also went 3-for-5 and drove in three runs, the offense was clicking.
“Happy to see our guys finally swing the bat pretty well,” Kline added. “It just makes a difference in a game when they can hit like that.”
IUP picked up right where it left off at the start of Game 2. The Hawks scored three runs in the first inning on homers by Pontoli and Davin Landers (sophomore, physical education), two more in the second, three in the third, one in the fourth and two in the sixth to cap the 11-3 victory.
This time five different Hawks went deep, the second-most in any game this season. Along with Pontoli and Landers, Cestra and Johnson homered again and Zach Miller (sophomore, criminology) knocked his second long-bomb of the season. And once again seven IUP players drove in at least one run.
Leading IUP’s 12-hit charge in Game 2 was Cestra, who went 3-for-4 with four runs scored, while Johnson and Roper went 2-for-4 each. Pontoli added three RBIs, giving him 38 on the season, which leads the team and ranks eighth in the PSAC.
Derrick Shields (freshman, sports administration) pitched a complete game, gave up five hits and three runs while striking out six.
With just eight division games left to play, the Hawks are sitting tight in the fourth and final playoff spot in the PSAC West. IUP (18-24, 10-10) is two games ahead of California (19-18, 8-12) and just a game back of Gannon (17-19, 11-9) for third.
The Hawks just barely missed out on a playoff appearance last season and will look to finish the job and seal a spot in the 2023 postseason over the next week and a half. After a PSAC East crossover game with Bloomsburg on Tuesday, IUP will close out the year with four-game series against Mercyhurst (23-10, 17-3) and Gannon, respectively.
Mercyhurst is guaranteed a top-two finish in the division, but the Golden Knights are barely ahead of the Hawks so depending on how these next two series go, it is not without reason to think IUP could catch them in the standings and snap a six-year playoff drought.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have the opportunity. Last year we did (too) but we kind of gave it away,” Johnson said. “This team, some of these guys have never been to the playoffs so it’s just a real blessing to be in the spot we are. But I think as a unit we just need to really bare down and focus these last two weeks.”
The Crimson Hawks began the four-game set against the Mountain Cats on Thursday in Johnstown, splitting the first twinbill. IUP won the opening game 6-1 behind a dominant pitching performance from Jeremiah Williams before losing the nightcap at Point Stadium in heartbreaking fashion, 9-5. Williams gave up just one run on four hits in six tidy innings in Game 1 to improve to 3-4 on the season.
The Hawks took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth in Game 2 before imploding to allow nine runs — all earned— on six hits in the inning.
“We had them. We just gave it away,” Kline said.
That made Friday’s sweep all the more impressive because the Hawks were able to put Thursday’s heartbreak behind them and bounce back less than 24 hours later. Moreover, Friday’s sweep was important not only because it gave the Hawks the series win, it also breathed life into their playoff hopes.
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