Legion team breaks out of slump

Post 28’s Sussex East Legion baseball team halted a three-game skid by picking up a pair of wins behind hot hitting and timely pitching by utility infielder C.J. Bell, and Cody Jensen and Trevor Abbott, in an abbreviated doubleheader against Delvets on July 16.

Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT: D.J. Clark tries to turn two in a strike-em-out throwing situation against Newark on Thursday, July 13.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT
D.J. Clark tries to turn two in a strike-em-out throwing situation against Newark on Thursday, July 13.
The rain over the past month has whipped area Legion teams into a whirlwind as they try to cram in as many games as possible before the July 26 makeup date. And though the games will all be played, the scheduling frenzy isn’t pitcher-friendly.

With both Colin Warner and Mike Casale having pitched in the doubleheader the prior day against Newark, Sussex East manager Jody Sweetman knew would have to look elsewhere for a starting pitcher.

Zac Spece looked sluggish in a second-game relief effort against Newark, giving up six hits. He had walked two, hit one batter and allowed two runs on 63 pitches over two innings of work, so he would be a last resort against Delvets.

Jensen followed Spece and pitched the final two innings but is still working his way back into pitching shape. So in came their knight in shining armor — Bell.

Bell pitched only one inning for Sussex Central last season and hadn’t pitched regularly since Little League, but he was willing to plug the hole.

Sweetman and most of the Bell’s teammates would’ve settled for a couple innings of quality pitching in the five-inning game. But he went the extra mile and worked four innings.

“I didn’t think he’d pitch that well,” teammate D.J. Clark said. “But he kept the ball low and was able to hit his spots.”

“It’s a big plus when you have a guy come off the bench and pitch well for you,” Clark continued.

“He threw a lot harder than we expected and more accurate too,” Sussex East’s Bo Wilkinson said. “I thought he’d only get us 30 or 40 pitches.”

Bell tossed 85 pitches over four innings in his first start. He scattered nine hits over that span, including a three-run homerun to lead off the game. But he never lost his composure.

“That’s just his personality,” Sweetman said. “He has that dry sense of humor and he doesn’t let things bother him.”

“We asked him to do his best that he could and he did a damn good job in my opinion. He’ll definitely pitch (more) for Sussex Central next year,” Sweetman added.

In fact, Bell countered Delvets three-run blast in the first inning with back-to-back swinging strikeouts before grounding out of the inning.

Bell fanned six in his four innings of work but twice he ended the inning strikeouts with runners in scoring position.

No matter how much damage Delvets incurred on Bell’s pitching, Sussex East’s offense was able to counteract much of it. And, after a shutdown fifth inning by Jensen, the team was able to win the game on a walk-off two-run homerun by Clark.

Trevor Abbott went 3-3 with three RBIs, but none was bigger than his 0-1 RBI single to score Warner on a hit-and run from second and tie the game at eight apiece.

Jensen came in to work the fifth inning and barely broke a sweat in the humid mid-90-degree weather. He secured all three outs on only 13 pitches and would eventually earn the win (2-0-1).

Bell led off the fifth with a single to right field and after a sac-bunt by Martez Hagans and a strikeout by Jensen, and was driven in for the winning runs on Clark’s walk-off homerun for the 10-8 win.

“Strike while the iron is hot” goes the old saying and, sure enough, Sussex East did just that in the second game. But they had little room to maneuver.

Sussex East and Abbott (1-3) won the game 7-0 but they received a bit of a scare when Wilkinson slid home on a past pitch to Josh Dean.

Wilkinson’s feet-first slide beat the tag, giving Sussex East a 3-0 lead. But while doing so, he heard a pop in his thigh. The injury left him hobbled for the remainder of the game.

Sweetman pulled Wilkinson from behind the plate in favor of Clark who was playing third base but Sussex East had nobody else to put in the game.

Sussex East’s lone bench player, Josh Sweetman, was his team’s designated hitter in the second game, so Wilkinson was faced with the proposition of playing with pain.

Rather than forfeit the game, Wilkinson urged his coaching staff to allow him to play at first base, where he wouldn’t have to move too much.

“I just played there because we would’ve lost if I didn’t,” Wilkinson said.

Worried about the well-being of his player, Sweetman told Wilkinson not to move for any ground balls heading his direction and to simply convert force-outs for the remainder of the game. But no sooner had he given instructions to his young ballplayer did a foul ball pop about midway to first baseline in foul territory. Wilkinson admirably made a break for it.

“He’s a competitor,” assistant head coach Mike Casale said of Wilkinson.

Wilkinson wasn’t able to shag the foul ball, but he did finish out the game.

Though he had mentioned that he’d heard a pop in his thigh — which would indicate that he’d torn a muscle — Wilkinson later said that it wasn’t as serious as previously thought.

“It’s probably only a strain or pulled muscle,” he said.

Heading down the stretch, Sussex East (13-7) still has six games to play by June 26. Currently, they are scheduled for a makeup game against Sussex West on July 19 and a possible doubleheader with Milford on July 20 (both after Coastal Point press time), a doubleheader against Georgetown on July 22 at the Sports at the Beach complex and to round out the regular season by finishing a rainout with Fox Post II on July 23.

The American Legion state baseball tournament starts July 29.