Lower Sussex Juniors fight off Laurel rebound

Lower Sussex’s Junior League All-Stars thought they were heading home after only four innings in a slaughter-rule win. They led Laurel 11-1 heading into the bottom half of the fourth on July 16, and it appeared that Lower Sussex would coast to the next round the following night.

But that wasn’t the case, and the game, which had started just before 9 p.m., went on until midnight. Lower Sussex held off a late-game surge by Laurel but also learned a pair of valuable lessons: never taking an opponent lightly, no matter the circumstance, and never give up.

“It kind of made us a little discouraged when they got back into the game,” Lower Sussex winning pitcher Aaron Culver said. “But we got our heads back in the game to close it out.”

“It (this game) showed us that we have to keep playing,” Lower Sussex head coach Brian Rogers said.

“But overall I think we played good as a team and we came through as a team,” he added.

Lower Sussex showed patience in the batter’s box and drew a game-high 15 walks, capitalized early hitting-wise. They pitched well at times and committed only two errors, compared to five for Laurel. Five different Lower Sussex batters — led by Culver’s three RBIs — plated runs, with nine of their 13 runs coming by way of hits. The remaining four runs were split evenly among Lower Sussex base runners advancing on past pitches and drawing walks with the bases loaded.

Culver helped his cause and gave Lower Sussex an early 2-0 lead on a one-out two-RBI standup double. Lower Sussex tacked on five more runs in the top of the second. Cameron Tierno knocked in Evin Houvinen and Marquel Knight (both of whom drew one-out walks) after smacking a single up the middle. Jesse Betts, Steve Castro and Culver delivered the remaining four runs on consecutive hits. (Castro hit a standup double.)

Laurel finally got onto the board with a RBI single by Dylan Shockley, to cut Lower Sussex’s lead to 9-1 in the bottom of the third. But they wouldn’t stop there, despite Lower Sussex adding two more runs in the top of the fourth.

Laurel’s Trey Tyndall and Shockley both hit two RBI standup doubles and cut the lead to 11-5 in the bottom of the fourth. Trey Elliot plated a run by drawing a bases-loaded walk, and Alex Ellis drove in Lucas Acosta to draw Laurel within four runs at 11-7 in the bottom of the fifth. Laurel scored three runs the next inning on two past-pitches and one error to cut the lead to only one run (11-10 Lower Sussex).

Lower Sussex scored three runs (two of which were scored on past-pitches) in the top of the seventh, led by recently reinserted second baseman Justin Shockley, who drove in Jordan Rogers. But even as the late evening turned into early morning, Laurel still had a chance in the bottom of the seventh.

Lower Sussex head coach Brian Rogers took out Tierno, who had relieved Culver in the bottom of the fifth, in favor of Brian Bacon. Rogers was mindful of Bacon’s pitch count because of the Little League rule limiting the amount of pitches a player can throw and still pitch the next day.

Rogers was hoping that Bacon could get the final three outs and still stay under the required 20 pitches. Bacon threw 18 but allowed a single and walked two. Fortunately for Lower Sussex, Bacon was able to force a 6-5 fielder’s choice and Rogers (who’d come in for Betts at catcher) caught a Laurel base runner trying to steal third.

So, in came Castro. Rogers was hoping to get the win without extending Castro’s pitch count, but at this point — with the tying run represented at the plate — he had no choice.

All it took, though, was one pitch and Lower Sussex had averted a major implosion. Castro got Zach Toadvine to hit a grounder right back to the pitcher’s mound, where he made the scoop and easy throw to first base to end the game.

“We struggled a little bit with our last two pitchers (Tierno and Bacon) but we were just trying to keep everyone’s pitch count down and Laurel hit the ball real well,” Rogers said.

And, though it went down as a loss for Laurel and sent them packing to the loser’s bracket, head coach Steve Gordy couldn’t have been more pleased with the game.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the boys,” he said. “They never gave up and played hard the whole game and gave us a chance to win the game.”

Lower Sussex played Cape Henlopen in the following game and lost 10-0, which sent them to the loser’s bracket as well. Lower Sussex loaded the bases in the first inning and had runners on second and third in the second inning but did very little after that, according to Rogers.

Castro started the game and pitched four innings and Bacon relieved him. But now Lower Sussex has found themselves in quite a conundrum. Four of their pitchers are ineligible for the July 18 game against Woodbridge, and Rogers may have to pitch a player with little or no experience.

“Our pitching is used up, but I guess there are lot of teams that are in the same position,” Rogers said.