The American Legion Zone 2 baseball tournament begins this morning in Augusta, and it’s a much different setup from the one last year.

The tournament field is down from eight teams to four. Instead of higher seeds hosting games, the entire tournament will be held at McGuire and Morton fields in Augusta.

Most importantly, last year both the Zone 2 winner and runner-up automatically advanced to the state tournament. This year, the winner advances to states, but the runner-up has to play the Zone 1 (Bangor area) runner-up in a play-in game July 23.

Today’s games pit No. 1 Augusta (14-2) against No. 4 Franklin County (9-8) at 10 a.m. at McGuire Field, and No. 2 Post 51 (12-4) against No. 3 Gardiner/Post 204 at noon at Morton Field.

As usual, the games are nine innings, and the tournament is a double-elimination format with American League rules (designated hitter, no re-entry, etc.)

“To me, the entire tournament comes down to two things,” Augusta coach Ray Vallee said. “It comes down to pitchers pitching to contact. The second thing is limiting a big inning. If you’re walking guys and not fielding the balls behind them, making them throw more pitches, by the fourth or fifth or sixth inning, they’re not going to be as effective.”

Vallee is undecided on today’s starting pitcher, with candidates including Jake Beland, David Clough and Luke Duncklee. Franklin County will go with Tim Smith, who pitched for Castleton State College this spring. In 2009, the Flyers were the No. 8 seed and Augusta was ranked first, and Smith beat Augusta in the opening game, helped by 15 walks from Augusta pitchers.

Augusta swept the Flyers in a doubleheader last Saturday by scores of 9-8 and 12-6. Beland and Smith were the starters in the first game, while Clough started the second game for Augusta. Smith’s only other pitching duties this week were in one inning against Gardiner on Monday.

“We need to win innings,” Franklin coach Dan Stefanilo said, “not give up a big inning, keep it close — I think our pitching will be able to do that — and try to scrape for runs any way we can.”

Post 51 and Gardiner/Post 204 also met in a doubleheader during the regular season, and Gardiner was listless as Post 51 took two five-inning victories by scores of 10-0 and 13-2. Gardiner coach Dan Burdin said his team had a short but strong practice Thursday.

“When we show up ready to play, and we pitch well and hit well, I think we’re up there with the best teams in the league,” Burdin said.

Burdin is leaning toward starting Forrest Chadwick, who last pitched Monday and retired eight of the nine Franklin batters he faced. Before that, he pitched a complete-game, 9-2 win over Waterville.

“He’s thrown off and on for us this year,” Burdin said. “Obviously, we want to get in the winner’s bracket, and we feel he gives us the best chance to do that right now. But you never know — we could show up Saturday and throw (Spencer) Allen.”

Post 51 coach Paul Jacobs said his players aren’t looking past Gardiner, in part because Gardiner has a history of success against this team in the Zone tournament. When the teams met on the first day of the tournament two years ago, Chadwick allowed one earned run in eight innings in a 6-4 Gardiner victory.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got to go down there and play our game.”

Blair Blaisdell will get the start on the mound for Post 51 this morning, and Jacobs is confident his entire pitching staff is well-rested.

“We rested everybody all week this week,” he said. “Everybody who threw this week threw a bullpen session in the game. So we’re good.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

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