Skowhegan shortstop Dylan Cunningham plays the ground ball against Augusta on Tuesday in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Skowhegan Tax Pro American Legion team won only two games last season. And when Caleb Bridges returned to the team this season, he figured he was in for more of the same.

Skowhegan, however, was another year older, and as it turned out, a considerable amount better. Now the team is 7-3 — as of late Tuesday evening — after beginning the day in third-place in Legion’s eight-team Northern Division, and you can count Bridges, one of the pitchers most responsible for that improvement, as being pleasantly surprised.

“I’ve been really surprised how it’s turned out,” he said. “This team’s been amazing. It’s fun to be out there playing ball.”

Skowhegan’s still one of the youngest teams in the division, but also, at the season’s midway point, one of its best. Despite having no college players, Skowhegan began the week behind Bangor (7-2) and RH Foster (7-3) and ahead of Motor City (6-4), with the top four teams going on to the state tournament at the end of the month.

“So far, I’m pleased,” coach Rod Stevens said. “Pitching’s been good, defense has been good, we don’t have any power hitters but we’ve got some kids that can do some stuff on the bases. … It’s a good mix.”

With the season halfway through, Bridges said the focus has shifted to the race to the tournament.

“I can’t wait for that,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been looking forward to all year. … Now that it’s there, you can see it, it’s like the adrenaline’s going. I think we’ve got a good shot to win it.”

Outside of that mix and looking in is Augusta, which fell to 2-4 after having to forfeit a suspended game Tuesday, but the confidence of the Capital Area bunch hasn’t even started to slip.

Skowhegan’s Zeb Tibbetts (31) dives back to first base before Augusta’s Patrick Rush (18) can get the ball Tuesday in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“We’re ready for the run,” center fielder Jackson Ladd said. “There’s not one team that scares us. … We’re excited for the challenge. We know the season didn’t really go to plan so far, with the rainouts and delayed games it’s been tough to get into a flow, but this second half we’re ready and looking to grind it out.”

While Augusta’s had a lukewarm start to the season, Skowhegan was hot out of the gates. A pitching rotation led by Bridges, Kyle Kruse, Colby Miller and Kody Vallee has been steady, and a lineup led by Dylan Cunningham, Matthew Berry, Zeb Tibbetts and Ben Hellen has been potent, scoring 63 runs in the first 10 games.

“Any different night, it could be we have an awesome pitching performance or some days our bats just come to life,” said Hellen, a first baseman. “In clutch situations, it’s never the same guy that gets the big hit. It’s always somebody new.”

Perhaps the biggest key, however, has been a defense led by Cunningham at shortstop and Hayden Caldwell in right field.

“We’ve come together as a team,” Bridges said. “Our pitching this year has been really good, we’re not walking guys, and we’re making plays out there.”

Stevens put it succinctly.

“No five-out innings. They kill you,” he said. “The defense is much better this year.”

The formula has been working, and the team as a whole is confident it will continue. A 5-3 win over first-place Bangor on July 3 ratcheted that self-belief to a higher level.

“We’ve seen some really good teams, we’ve played some really big games,” Hellen said. “I think we’re excited to see some more top teams going forward. I think we’ve established ourselves as a pretty good contender.”

For Augusta, there’s a different dynamic at play. The tournament is less than three weeks away, but with only six completed results on the ledger, the team finds itself with a whole lot of schedule left, but a small amount of time remaining in which to fit the games.

“It’s going to be a real nasty finish,” Ladd said. “But a lot of the guys that are on this team were the same guys that were on the team last year, so they’ve been through it.”

Left fielder Austin Stebbins said it’s been difficult to get on track with game after game being called due to rain or suspended due to darkness.

“It’s pretty tough. It’s sort of like the high school season, where a lot of games were getting rained out,” he said. “But summer ball is summer ball, so you kind of have that more relaxed feeling where you just show up and try to get into a groove.”

With two-thirds of the schedule remaining, however, there are plenty of chances yet for the team to play its way into the playoff field. And with a lineup full of players from teams that had disappointing playoff exits during the spring, there’s a common goal for Legion success to make up for it.

“This summer opportunity’s continuing the motion of that competitive drive,” Ladd said. “A lot of us feel like we got (robbed) in our last high school games, so this is just a second life, and a great opportunity for us.”

That being said, the team knows there’s little time to wait. A 2-4 record is a bad start. A 2-7 record could be a lost season.

“We’re definitely starting to bring up the intensity,” Stebbins said. “We’re always talking in the dugout about how we’ve got to start winning these games. We’ve got to buckle down, so hopefully we can get some pieces together and get some wins.”

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