STANDISH, Maine — One strike away from a state championship, Matt Burnett looked to the sky.
“I was just telling God to please make this next pitch a strike,” said Burnett, one of the six seniors on the Ellsworth High School baseball team.
That particular pitch was fouled off late Saturday afternoon, but two pitches later Burnett threw his glove to the sky after a game-ending strikeout that secured the Eagles a 2-0 victory over Freeport at Saint Joseph’s College and the program’s first Class B state championship since 1988.
“Thirty-one years is a long time,” Ellsworth senior shortstop Devin Grindle said. “Some people told us we could do it and other people told us we couldn’t, but we did it. It’s amazing, out of this world.”
The victory capped off a 19-1 season for coach Dan Curtis’ club and marked the completion of an achievement two years in the making.
Last spring Ellsworth came up just short, falling to Brewer in the North regional final. This year, there was no stopping the Eagles.
“This is unreal,” said Burnett after tossing a three-hit shutout. “We’ve been working for this for so long.”
The rangy Burnett, who teamed with classmate Conner Wagstaff as the Eagles’ 1-2 pitching punch throughout the title quest, largely overpowered the Freeport batters with his fastball. He mixed in just enough off-speed deliveries to keep the Falcons guessing.
“That’s a heck of a team,” said Burnett of Freeport, which will return seven starters from this year’s 16-4 lineup next spring. “They’re going to be a tough team to beat in the coming years.”
The University of Southern Maine-bound right-hander struck out eight and walked three while throwing 91 pitches — 57 for strikes.
“We saw in this game what Matt gives us every game, and that’s everything he has,” Grindle said.
Burnett allowed only one Freeport baserunner to reach third base, that coming with two outs in the top of the sixth. He retired the first batter he faced in six of the seven innings.
“Matt did a great job getting the leadoff guy out, and when you do that in baseball it’s always a great recipe for success,” Curtis said.
As it did in the regional final, Ellsworth backed its pitching with errorless defense with the gold glove on the line.
“Matt just goes about his business and knows the guys are behind him,” Curtis said.
Ellsworth chipped away at Freeport starter Shea Wagner for five hits over the first four innings but stranded six early baserunners before breaking through in the top of the fifth.
“We knew that it was coming,” Grindle said. “When we were on it, we weren’t striking out, we were hitting the ball in the field and knew that it was coming along, but we just had to wait it out with our defense.
Leadoff batter Tyler Mitchell ignited the rally with a single to center, and he advanced when Grindle pushed a sacrifice bunt past Wagner at the mound for an infield hit. Jackson Curtis then lined the first pitch he saw into left field for a bases-loading single, marking the end of Wagner’s day on the mound.
In came left-hander Blaine Cockburn, who had not allowed a run and had recorded five saves in 10-plus innings as Freeport’s primary reliever this spring.
Burnett greeted the freshman with a blast to deep center field that went as a sacrifice fly as Gabe Wagner — Shea’s brother — made a leaping catch.
Ellsworth’s second run came as Grindle scored from third on the back end of a double steal with Curtis.
“When I saw Hunter go I watched (Freeport) do that same play in warmups and knew that they were throwing it to second base so I took off,” Grindle said. “Sometimes you have to take big risks to win big games.”
A pair of two-out walks and some daring baserunning that produced three stolen bases gave Freeport hope with runners at second and third in the bottom of the sixth, but Burnett escaped by getting Eriksen Shea to fly out to backpedaling freshman left fielder Michael Palmer.
“That was a great effort by Freeport and we answered the bell. We played great defense and the game was (symbolic) of how we’ve played all season,” coach Curtis said. “It was nice to end it that way.”