The players' searing intensity matched the game's championship significance.
The Dayton Raiders looked like a team determined to win the North-Central District American Legion baseball championship Monday at the Dayton Rod and Gun Club's Buckshot Field.
The Raiders entered the game atop the district standings with 66TC record, and Dundalk, Monday's opponent, was in second place at 6-3.
When Dundalk exploded for a five-run first inning, however, Dayton's first-place stature was in jeopardy.
But Dayton rallied for one run in the bottom of the first, five more in the second and four in the fourth to take a 10-7 win and open some breathing room in the race for a first-half district title.
The winners of the first and second halves will battle each other in a three-game playoff July 31 to Aug. 2 to decide the championship and the district representative to the state tournament.
Power-hitting and four spectacular fielding plays were the keys to Dayton's victory. The gutsy pitching of Todd Messner also served as a rallying point.
Dundalk ripped Messner, now 5-0, for five runs including two homers in the first inning, but Dayton coach George Bickerton showed patience and left Messner on the mound. The move paid off as the right-hander allowed just two more runs while pitching his fourth complete game.
"I just got by," Messner said. "It was the worst game I pitched all year. I tried to strike everyone out in the first inning, and that was a mistake."
Messner, who entered the game with 36 strikeouts in 32 innings, eventually fanned five while giving up 11 hits, walking five and hitting a batter.
Dayton made three errors, but six of Dundalk's runs were earned.
"Being five runs down was not a real concern," Dayton coach George Bickerton said. "This team has a positive attitude and won't quit. Todd has tremendous heart."
Messner, James Cheng, Chris Leinauer and Darin Nelson each had two hits for Dayton.
Cheng doubled and tripled in his first two at-bats. Messner hit two singles and walked twice. Leinauer hit a single and a double. Nelson had a three-run homer and a single.
Eric Glenn and Mike Fadrowski each banged two-run doubles.
"This was a big win for us, and Darin's homer was the biggest play of the game," Messner said. "It pumped us up."
The homer came in the bottom of the second with Dayton trailing, 5-1. Dayton went on to score two more runs that inning and go ahead, 6-5.
Dundalk tied it 6-6 in the third on three singles, and went up 7-6 in the fourth inning on a walk, a single and an error.
In that inning, Messner made a spectacular fielding play on a sizzling liner that would have hit him in the face had he not gotten his glove in front of the ball. He knocked the ball to the ground, retrieved it and threw out the runner, Gary Burrows, who had already homered and doubled. Chris Leinauer's shoestring catch in left field ended that rally.
Dayton pulled ahead 10-7 with a four-run fourth inning featuring two-run doubles by both Glenn and Fadrowski.
An over-the-shoulder running catch by second baseman Glenn helped keep Dundalk off the scoreboard in the fifth inning. And a strong throw from center fielder Fadrowski in the seventh inning cut down Dundalk's leadoff batter as he tried to stretch a single into a double.
The hitting of Cheng, Nelson and Leinauer marked an encouraging plus for Dayton. Cheng was batting just .238 (5-for-21), Nelson .238 (5-for-21) and Leinauer .250 (3-for-12).
Fadrowski (.348) and Glenn (.500) have been two of Dayton's top three batters.
Dayton's top hitter, Brian Bickerton (.511), missed Monday's game with stretched ligaments in his right ankle, an injury he aggravated during a game last Saturday. Bickerton wore a splint on the ankle and was not in uniform Monday. He leads the team with 24 hits, 16 RBI, five doubles and one triple. He may not return to action until next week.
Because of the injury, which first occurred about four weeks ago, Bickerton has pitched only 11 innings and is 0-2 with a 4.34 ERA.
Mike Miller and Bryan Egolf each have 2-1 records for Dayton.
The Raiders must play four more games in the first half. Their next home game is Friday against Bethesda in a non-district contest. They play host to Towson July 7.