POLAND — One of the maladies afflicting American Legion baseball is the lack of young men willing to devote their time and energy to the sport.

Jesse Bennett is bucking the trend and then some.

Rejected by the team that plays where he toiled in high school ball, the Durham resident makes an hour-plus commute two or three times a week to play for Locke Mills, which is based in Bethel.

Saturday’s doubleheader, played at Poland Regional High School, cut his commute in half. But Bennett showed he’s willing to go above and beyond once he gets on the field, too, throwing three innings of gritty shutout relief to help Locke Mills salvage a split with a 4-3 win in the second half of the twin bill.

In the opener, Tri-Town needed only five innings to invoke the 10-run rule for an 11-1 win.

Both teams are now 2-2.

Bennett, a 2012 Brunswick High School grad who just completed his freshman year at the University of Maine, stranded two runners in each of his first two innings in relief of winning pitcher Ben Holmes. Then, with the tying run 90 feet away and one out in the seventh, he closed it out to pick up the hard-earned save.

“The (Brunswick) coach decided to use the Legion program as kind of a summer school ball program, so he kept all of the sophomores and juniors and cut all of the post-grads,” Bennett said. “I’d been calling around looking for a place to play summer ball and finally the Bethel team had a spot for me.”

Locke Mills coach Rob Manning is more than glad to have him.

“He’s a very, very good pitcher,” Manning said. “He’s very consistent and throws hard.”

After stranding runners at first and third in the sixth, Bennett surrendered a double to Kaleb Bridgham to lead off the seventh. But he buckled down and got Jake Simard (two hits) to pop out to first for the first out. Bridgham took third on a wild pitch, but Bennett got Billy Rascoe to foul out to first and Ethan Cailler with a soft liner to shortstop to end the game.

“I knew I had good defense in the field, so I just tried to let them hit it and let the defense take care of it for me,” Bennett said. “I definitely just tried to tune everything out and just focus on the hitter.”

“We were missing some players, three kids away at different events,” Manning said. “It was tough to try to plug some holes, and some kids really stepped up.”

One of those players was catcher Alex Emery, who braved the humidity and some equipment problems to catch all but one inning of the doubleheader. Emery’s two-run double and a pair of Tri-Town errors were the key plays in Locke Mills’ four-run second inning.

“We gave up three unearned runs in that game. I think that defensive execution is our challenge. Our pitching staff put balls in play, but we weren’t able to execute defensively to give us an opportunity in that second game,” Tri-Town coach Hal Bridgham said. “I applaud my team, how hard they worked. They battled right to the end of the game.”

Holmes, the ace of Dirigo’s 2012 Class C state championship team, allowed a run in the first and two more in the second but maintained the lead with four innings of five-hit, one-walk work.

“He was on a 70-pitch count. He threw 78 pitches,” Manning said. “He’s so smart as a pitcher. They got a couple of hits off us and you could see him just bear down and start throwing the ball really well. It’s almost like there’s another gear there.”

Garrett Fillebrown had an RBI double and Lukas Johnson an RBI single for Tri-Town, while Pat Jipson added two hits, including a double.

Zak Johnson reached base in seven out of eight plate appearances in the two games, including two hits, two runs scored and two batted in. But his best work for Tri-Town might have been the five innings of five-hit ball he threw to win Game 1.

Johnson might have had a shutout if the Tri-Town bench had noticed a mistake in the Locke Mills lineup earlier.

Holmes, who started at third base and hit cleanup, was left off the card Locke Mills submitted and had an RBI single in the first inning to account for his team’s only run. But Tri-Town didn’t point out the mistake until an inning later. By rule, umpires would have declared him out for batting out of order if the mistake had come to light in the inning he first stepped into the batter’s box.

Tri-Town’s offense offense rendered it all moot anyway, answering with three runs in the bottom of the first thanks in part to back-to-back RBI doubles by Lukas Johnson and Bridgham.

Zak Johnson added to the lead with a single to drive in Matt Rabasco (two hits, two runs scored) in the second. Tri-Town tacked on two unearned runs in the fourth, then invoked the mercy rule with five in the fifth.

Johnson struck out seven and walked just one. Aside from the five hits, he allowed just one ball out of the infield.

“The curve ball was a little iffy in the first inning or two, but then I found that and felt good. It felt good to get back out there on the mound,” said Johnson, who pitched for St. Dom’s this spring. “We just kept hitting, so it was a team effort in the first one.”

“Zak’s an outstanding competitor,” Bridgham said. “This is my first opportunity to coach him and he’s an outstanding individual, but what I like most about him is his intensity.

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