Sussex East goes out in style

In a game that would decide who would earn the eighth and final seed into the 2007 Delaware State Legion tournament, the Post 28 Sussex East Warriors proved to be the spoiler on July 31.

Georgetown and Milford, both 8-22, were in contention for the final slot. And though both records were identical, Milford led Georgetown by a mere two points because of forfeits. So, in order for Georgetown to make the playoffs, they’d have to beat Sussex East, as a win equals three points in tournament calculations.

Milford head coach Keith Millman sat in stands, anxiously awaiting the outcome — not only because his team’s state tournament hopes were riding on this game but also because he’d promised his team that he’d shave his beard of 11 years if they made the tournament. And, early on, it looked as if his beard was safe.

Georgetown batted around the order, sending 12 batters to the plate, and scored seven runs to take a 7-1 lead in the bottom of the first. They’d capitalized on a shaky pitching performance by Warriors starter C.J. Bell.

Bell had hit the leadoff batter, allowed four walks and two run-producing hits that scored three runs and left the bases loaded for Trevor Abbott. But the damage wouldn’t have been as great had Sussex East not committed three costly errors with runners at first and second to start the bottom half of the inning.

With Bryan Stewart and Max Coveleski already on base, Warriors catcher Bo Wilkinson tried to throw out Stewart at second, but no one covered and the ball sailed into centerfield. Brian Scott charged for the scoop and fired the ball to Luis Barrientos for a play at third but, again, it sailed and Stewart was able to score to tie the game at one apiece.

Coveleski, who’d reached base on a walk, stole second base after the second pitch to Mike Morris. Four pitches later, Morris hit a dribbler to Barrientos, who bobbled the quick scoop in an attempt to tag out the lead runner and left himself no time for at least the sure out at first.

Had Barrientos scooped the ground ball cleanly and applied the tag to Coveleski or made the throw to first for the sure out, Sussex East ultimately would have eliminated four Georgetown runs. Chris Yermal’s two-RBI standup double would have only scored one with Coveleski tagged out.

Bell finally got the first out by forcing Jon Goodwin to hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield, though it could have been the second and the inning should have ended after Abbott struck out the first batter he’d faced, which would’ve nixed three more runs that scored.

But despite Georgetown’s fortune, Warriors head coach Jody Sweetman was confident that his team had the firepower to hit their way back into the game and finish the season on a high note.

Sussex East (16-13-1) was eliminated from the state tournament despite having a superior record to both Milford and Georgetown, because they’d forfeited six games this season — two more than what is allowed. They finished the season (16-7-1) in games that they played.

“We were a little flat in the beginning,” Sweetman said. “C.J. wasn’t pitching too bad but we weren’t playing too good behind him. So I said to the guys, ‘We have the bats to come back, but we need to stop making mistakes in the field.’ And after that we settled down started hitting up and down our lineup.”

The Warriors battered their way back into the game by batting around the order themselves in the top of the second and scored four runs to cut the lead to 7-5. They regained the lead — one they would not relinquish — in the top of the fourth on a two-RBI single into the left-centerfield gap by Josh Sweetman, which gave them a 9-7 lead.

Sussex East had six batters with multiple hits, led by shortstop D.J. Long, who went 3-4 with two singles, a double and four RBIs. Bell also went 3-4 with three singles. Sean Lewis went 2-3 with a triple and two RBIs. Barrientos went 2-4 with two singles, Sweetman went 2-4 with two singles and two RBI; and Sean Lecates went 2-2 on two singles and scored two RBI coming off the bench.

Bryan Lynch, Scott and Abbott also recorded one hit apiece and, though the remainder of the team (three batters) would go hitless, only one batter out of 12 wouldn’t reach base.

“Sussex East is a good team,” Georgetown skipper D.J. Hughes said. “They’d probably be one of the favorites [to win] the state tournament if they were going, in my opinion. But you have to give them credit and tip your hat to them. They battled back and never quit.”

Lecates and Sweetman hit consecutive two-out, two-RBI singles in the top of the fourth, which tied and gave the Warriors the lead. Josh Sweetman watched two called strikes land and then protected the plate by fouling one straight back out of play before working a 1-2 count and ultimately delivering the go-ahead hit. And it’s those two at-bats as the number seven and nine hitters that have come to define just how good Sussex East had become.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this year our bottom half of the lineup batted better than last year,” Sweetman said. “We have quite a few hitters on our team this year, and tonight we did really well. I was very proud of them. They all stuck in there.”

Warner (6-0) earned the win after relieving Abbott at the beginning of the bottom of the third. After allowing consecutive run-producing singles and a walk in the bottom of the first, Abbott settled down to strike out the final batter and end the inning. He responded in the second inning by working a three-up, three-down bottom of the second, which included striking out the final two batters on eight pitches.

Abbott looked good, but Sweetman limited his pitches because he’d pitched the previous night against Dover Post 2 (20-9), which resulted in a 2-2 tie. But without missing a beat, Warner picked up where Abbott left off.

Warner allowed three singles and two walks, and struck out four, including striking out the side on 11 pitches, nine of which were strikes. Georgetown recorded two of its three hits (all singles) in the final two at-bats of the game, in the bottom of the sixth, before the game was called because of darkness.

Millman said he had had a feeling that Sussex East would win the game, so the night before he trimmed his beard down in order to “see what his face would look like without it.”

Milford (No.8) will play Stahl (No.1) at 5 p.m. at Wesley College on Aug. 4.