AUGUSTA — Gayton Post 31 had a flare for the dramatic while winning its first American Legion baseball state championship last summer.
The Lewiston-based team rallied in its final at-bat of a play-in game just to make the eight-team field, then used three, one-run victories to cap off its run to the title — scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to outlast Augusta 17-16 in the final game.
Gayton will be seeking a second straight crown when the 2011 state tournament begins Wednesday with four first-round games at Morton and McGuire fields, but there’s been little drama so far this summer for the defending champs. Coach Todd Cifelli’s club is unbeaten at 21-0 and has been rarely tested in sweeping the Zone 3 regular-season and postseason titles.
Gayton has won 14 games by the 10-run mercy rule.
“We’ve got 13 players back from last year, and eight who played significant roles,” said Cifelli, also head coach of the Lewiston High School baseball team that won its first Eastern Maine Class A championship since 1950 this spring.
“We’ve got a good group of guys back, and our kids show up ready to go in each game.”
The bulk of the Gayton team played for Lewiston High School, and those players have a combined 39-2 record this year.
Gayton boasts a .431 team batting average, led by infielder Luke Cote (.568), catcher Mekae Hyde (.553, nine home runs, 34 RBIs) and pitcher-first baseman Corbin Hyde (.423-5-25).
Gayton’s pitchers, meanwhile, have a 1.01 earned run average, with Joe Sullivan (5-0) and Corbin Hyde (4-0) among the staff leaders.
“Pitching depth is key with the nine-inning games,” said Cifelli. “Another key, like in all games but especially here, is to stop the big innings. That’s when games get out of control because you have to go to your bullpen or at least the pitch counts get jacked up.”
Gayton begins the defense of its state title in an 11 a.m. start at McGuire Field against the Zone 5 runner-up, Fayette-Staples of Saco. That is a rematch of a first-round game last year won by Gayton 22-13.
Fayette-Staples already is assured a berth in this year’s Northeast Regional to be held Aug. 4-8. That tournament will be at The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach, and Fayette-Staples (18-3) is the host team.
The state tournament begins on Morton Field at 10 a.m. with Zone 1 tournament champion Brewer (19-5) facing Zone 2 champion Augusta (17-2) in another first-round rematch from a year ago won by Brewer.
Brewer, the regular-season runner-up in Zone 1, powered its way through the zone tournament behind tight defense and complete-game pitching victories from Kyle McLain, Pat McEwen and Evan Eldridge.
Coach Chris Morris’ Falcons are led offensively by third baseman Eric White, fresh off his freshman season at the University of Maine, and are are making their sixth trip to the state tournament since 2000.
Augusta lost its first two games this summer but since then has 17 consecutive victories.
“The top part of the bracket is a bear,” said Cifelli. “Brewer against (pitcher Ryan) Minoty and Augusta in the first round will be a great game, and we’ll be challenged by Fayette-Staples. Fayette-Staples has a bunch of arms, and Brewer’s got the pitching to make a strong run in the tournament.”
Wednesday’s afternoon session has Zone 4 champion Morrill Post (13-6) against Zone 3 runner-up Bessey Motors of South Paris (15-6) at 2 p.m. on Morton Field. Morrill Post, with players from South Portland and Cape Elizabeth high schools, finished third in the Zone 4 regular-season standings, while Bessey Motors (largely from Oxford Hills High School) is in the state tournament for the ninth time in 10 years.
Wednesday’s final game, set for 4 p.m. at McGuire Field, matches Zone 1 tourney runner-up Bangor (20-6) against Zone 5 tournament champion Ramsdell-Rogers of York (14-6).
Bangor, the Zone 1 regular-season champ, is making its 10th state tournament appearance in the last 12 years.
Coach Dave Morris’ club earned its berth by defeating Zone 2 runner-up Gardiner 8-6 in Saturday’s play-in round. The Comrades scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to take a 6-5 lead, then got a tie-breaking two-run homer from catcher Dylan Morris in the bottom of the eighth after Gardiner had tied the game in the top of the inning.
Additional good news for Bangor on Saturday came from lefthander Joe Stanevicz, who injured his throwing arm during the Zone 1 tournament but bounced back to allow one run on two hits in 4⅔ innings of relief to get the play-in game victory.
Stanevicz, lefthander Curtis Worcester and righthander Jesse Wood anchor the Bangor pitching staff. Dylan Morris, shortstop Nic Cota and second baseman Cody McInnis have been among the Comrades’ leading hitters.
Ramsdell-Rogers, in its sixth year of Legion baseball, will be making its first trip to the states. The team, which draws players from York and Wells high school, scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to earn a 13-12 win over Fayette-Staples in the Zone 5 final.
The double-elimination state tournament continues through Sunday.