DOVER – They came to Dover with a chip on their shoulders.
Now Sussex County’s Big League baseball all-stars might leave with a championship banner in their hands.
District III earned a spot in the Big League Eastern Regional championship game with a 7-3 victory over Kent County’s District I in the winners’ bracket finals on Tuesday afternoon.
Sussex County, from Millsboro-Georgetown, plays in the finals today at 5:30 p.m. at Dover Little League. If it loses, a second title game would follow for the right to represent the East in the Big League World Series in Easley, S.C.
District III will face District I again after the Kent County all-stars rallied for a 9-8 win over Pennsylvania in the losers’ bracket finals late Tuesday evening.
The all-Delaware matchup today guarantees that the First State will have a team in the World Series for the first time since 2006.
“It feels great being this close but there’s a lot of work still to be done,” said left fielder J.D. Messick, a Sussex Central High grad. “We’re not done yet. We’ve got one more to finish it out.
“It’s ‘Slower, Lower,’ we don’t get a lot of respect in anything. We felt the same way in high school sports. Now we’re out here and nothing’s changed. We’re trying to make a statement out here and we’re one win away from doing that.”
“What do you say about these guys? They’re so gelled together it’s incredible,” said coach Tony Susi. “We came into basically Dover’s backyard, their house, and we played some solid ball.
“It’s not over yet,” he added. “We absolutely are not putting the cart in front of the horse. We know we have one more big game to win. We haven’t raised our hand in victory, haven’t run around with a flag. It’s not over and anything can happen.”
In the showdown of the two downstate squads on Tuesday, District III never trailed after scoring a pair of runs in the top of the second inning. Sussex County, though, didn’t put the game out of reach until it scored four runs in the fifth inning to open up a 7-2 advantage.
District III’s strategy in the tournament had been to limit its pitchers to 30 pitches to keep them eligible. But, after bringing in Sal Ingrassia in in the third, Sussex County let the left-hander finish the contest.
The Sussex Central grad limited District I to its three runs on four hits in five innings.
“He (Susi) said, ‘We’re thinking of taking you out at 30,’” said Ingrassia. “I said, ‘You’re not going to take me out at 30. I’m going to throw the rest of this game.’ I’m the most consistent. There’s not many better on this team.
“It was kind of throwing the ball down the middle, let them hit and see what happened.”
District I ended up flying out or popping up on 13 of their 21 outs.
Sussex County, on the other hand, seemed to do a better job of hitting line drives or hard ground balls through the infield. Also, five of its RBI came with two outs.
In the fifth, District III scored all four runs after having two outs with nobody on base. Luke Williams and Jacob Swift had back-to-back RBI singles before Nino Susi – the No. 9 hitter – capped off the outburst with a two-run double to right center.
Messeck added a pair of RBI singles in the contest while Eddie Hogan had the other.
“You know what? One guy picks the other guy up,” said Tony Susi. “If one guy falters a little bit, the other guy is right there to have his back – which is pretty darn good, in my opinion. All of our guys are always ready to go.”
District I scored single runs in three different innings, getting an RBI double from Dover’s Kendall Small in the third, taking advantage of a couple errors in the fourth before Smyrna-Clayton’s Corey Everage belted a solo homerun in the seventh.
Even though Sussex County’s players would have been happy to beat anybody on Tuesday, there was a certain satisfaction in beating another downstate Delaware team.
“We know all those kids over there, we’ve played against them in the spring,” said Messeck. “It makes you feel good. We came right up here to their field, we played our game and we came out on top.
“We can’t let off the gas yet,” he added. “There’s still work left to be done.”
District-I 9, Pennsylvania 8: Down its last chance, the Kent County all-stars scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to pull out the victory in the losers’ bracket finals.
Pinch hitter Travis Dill of Camden-Wyoming tied the game with an opposite-field double to right that brought home both Tommy Jordan (Milford) and Aven Purnell (Dover).
With bases loaded and nobody out, Dill then tagged up and scored when Smyrna-Clayton’s Corey Everage hit a fly ball to centerfield.
On a bang-bang play at the plate, Dill slid to the outside to avoid the catcher’s tag as both teams erupted on the safe call.
“We had to risk it,” said Dill. “The throw was a little toward the first base line so I went outside. I knew I was safe but you never know.
“We fought. We battled back the whole time. It doesn’t matter if we’re up or down, we’re going to play hard.”
The two teams went back-and-forth the whole game with Pennsylvania scoring three runs in the top of the seventh to take its 8-6 lead.
District I is now 7-3 in the tournament over the last two years. It lost to Pennsylvania in last year’s title game.
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or email@example.com.