WATERVILLE — The idea first came to Messalonskee High School baseball coach Ray Bernier three or four years ago, as he prepped his team to play Bangor.
“Every time we played Bangor, I always felt if they would see different pitchers in a game, they would be the type of team we’d have a better chance winning against, rather than pitching one or two the whole game,” Bernier said. “They’re the type of team, if they’ve seen a pitcher a few times, they really start to take advantage of that. They’ve always been the type of team that wins by getting those big innings.”
Bernier thought about his idea and filed it away. Maybe later.
“Up to this point, I never dared to try it,” Bernier said.
When Bernier saw his Eagles, the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Class A baseball tournament, would open the tournament with a quarterfinal game at No. 3 Bangor, his idea returned, and this time, he implemented it.
The defending Class A state champion, Messalonskee used four pitchers at Bangor last Wednesday, sewing together innings like somebody patching a pair of jeans. And it worked. Messalonskee’s handful of arms shut down the Rams and the Eagles earned a 3-2 win.
On Saturday night against No. 2 Hampden, Bernier went to the strategy again and this time, took a 7-2 win.
Messalonskee, now 12-6, takes on No. 1 Oxford Hills at 5 p.m. today at Augusta’s Morton Field in the Eastern A championship game. Messalonskee and Oxford Hills did not play in the regular season. The last time these teams met was in the regional quarterfinals last season, a 10-0 Messalonskee win.
When Bernier explained his plan to assistant coaches Ray Bernier (his son) and Dale Breton, they were on board. The team was on board, too.
“The team was willing to do it, so we went for it,” Bernier said after Wednesday’s practice at Thomas College’s Harold Alfond Athletic Center. “The good part is, everyone was on the same page. So we gave it a whirl.”
Against Bangor, Messalonskee started Ben Frazee, who turned the ball over to Jake Dexter in the third inning. Dexter gave way to Nick Mayo in the sixth and Devin Warren closed it out.
“I figured we’ve been going with the starters going for a while, but that change of arm slot and speed might really help us out,” Warren, who also closed Saturday’s win at Hampden, said.
Bernier and his coaching staff aren’t going on guts and a hunch. Who pitches when is planned out before the game, with a little wiggle room built in. For instance, Patrick Breton knew he’d start against Hampden and go two innings, to be followed by Frazee. The plan was to get two innings out of Frazee, but when the Broncos put the first two batters of the fourth inning on base, Bernier called on Dexter a little earlier than expected.
Dexter struck out the side to get out of the jam and pitched three innings, allowing one run.
“We just adjust if something crazy happens and we just move everyone ahead,” Bernier said.
Added Breton: “I knew I was going to go two innings and we were going to have other guys who throw harder than me, so it would get (Hampden) off rhythm.”
Bernier said the Eagles will use the same approach in the regional final against Oxford Hills. Mayo will get the start. Warren said he’s ready for more late inning duty.
“It gives me more freedom to come in and throw my better stuff and throw harder,” Warren said. “Once I’m there, I’m focused and ready to go.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242