AUGUSTA — Austin Stebbins knew he’d be part of the comeback. He just didn’t expect to play the hero.

The Augusta Elks American Legion center fielder came to bat with his team already in the midst of a wild rally, battling all the way back from a quick seven-run deficit against Gardiner, but it needed one more big hit down one run in the bottom of the sixth. Stebbins glanced down the third base line to coach Tim Rodrigue, looking for a familiar sign.

“Originally, I thought that he was going to end up having me squeeze, because he’s done that to me in the past,” Stebbins said.

Not this time. Swing away, Rodrigue indicated.

“He never gave it to me. He had confidence in me,” Stebbins said. “So I just went up there, did what I do, tried to get a good count and hit my pitch.”

It was the right move. Stebbins laced a single to center field on a full count, scoring Ryan Sinclair and Jason Brooks and giving Augusta a lead it would not relinquish, en route to a 12-10 victory in the dwindling daylight.

The Elks stormed all the way back from an 8-1 deficit, and bolstered their prime position in Zone 2 by upping their record to 7-1.

“A lot of these players are veteran players that have been playing for me for three years,” Rodrigue said. “They don’t give up. I told them that when the game was over, they could have easily checked in right there in the second inning and given up. But they kept scrapping, and to be honest with you, I had faith the whole game.”

The second inning tested it. The Elks put themselves in position for the comeback with a list of mistakes that allowed Gardiner (0-7) to seemingly blow the game open. There were four walks, a balk and two errors, and even the routine plays seemed an adventure as Gardiner sent 13 men to the plate in what was ultimately a seven-run frame.

“That second inning, boy, we were on our heels,” Rodrigue said. “We were a little deflated when we came in after that inning, but (then) we put runs on the board every inning.”

Indeed, Augusta’s rally was an exercise in patience. The Elks got a run across in the second, third and the fourth, narrowing the gap to 8-4, then answered a Gardiner run with four more runs in the fifth, making it 9-8 and restoring the noise and swagger to the Augusta dugout.

In the sixth, the Elks continued their surge. Ryan Sinclair drilled a leadoff double off the left field wall, and after a passed ball, Brooks drew a full-count walk to put the go-ahead run on. He moved up on a stolen base, and scored easily on Stebbins’s sharp liner to center.

“He was hitting the ball hard, all day,” said Rodrigue, whose team added insurance runs when Stebbins scored on an error and Hunter Williams came home on a Dylan Brown double. “He was due to get a hit.”

The insurance came in handy, as Gardiner didn’t let the win slip away without a fight in the seventh. Jackson Ladd, Ryan Kappelmann (who homered in the first for Gardiner’s first lead) and Nick Sanborn stroked one-out singles, with Sanborn’s scoring Ladd to make it 12-10. But Nick Turcotte threw out Sanborn trying to steal second, and Justin Rodrigue fanned Nic Berube to finally end the wild contest.

Ladd and Cole Lawrence scored twice for Gardiner, while Sanborn drove in a pair of runs and Kappelmann had two hits.

“Augusta definitely put together good at-bats through all seven innings, and it just caught up to us at the end,” Gardiner coach Russ Beckwith said. “It’s disappointing for us. We’re still scrapping to put something together offensively. This was probably our better offensive production day of the year with this group, and we’re starting to see this group meld, which is good.”

Gardiner found it difficult to keep the offensive surge going against Augusta pitcher Dean Jackman, who got the last out of the second and who fanned four while allowing one run before giving way to Justin Rodrigue in the sixth.

“Dean’s tough,” Coach Rodrigue said of the Hall-Dale rising senior. “I didn’t know Dean before this year. I’m very impressed with him.”

Augusta’s comeback hopes got a boost in the fifth inning, the first of the Elks’ back-to-back four-run frames. Augusta scored all four runs with two outs, beginning with Turcotte’s single to right that scored Sinclair and continuing when Stebbins scored on a passed ball and then when Brown (three RBIs) smacked a single that scored Turcotte and Mark Buzzell.

“We played Gardiner last week, we hit the ball really well and we ran away with the game early. However, they showed up to play today, and they gave us a run for our money,” Coach Rodrigue said. “But we stayed in it the whole time.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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