ELLSWORTH — This was never how the Ellsworth baseball team could have dreamed of drawing it up.
In a span of just a few minutes Saturday, Ellsworth went from thinking it had won its regional semifinal contest against Caribou to trailing by two runs. A series of mistakes along with a few close calls going the visitors’ way had left the Eagles shell-shocked and in need of a last-ditch rally to save their season.
It would have been understandable, then, had a young Ellsworth team been too shaken to mount a comeback. Instead, the Eagles fought back to earn a rollercoaster win — and a spot in yet another Northern Maine championship game.
Ellsworth claimed a 7-6 victory in Saturday’s Class B North semifinal game against Caribou at Ellsworth High School. The win came as a walk-off single from Michael Palmer capped off a three-run seventh inning for the home team and sent the Eagles to their third consecutive regional final.
“Our kids were so tough when it mattered,” Ellsworth head coach Dan Curtis said. “To be able to turn it on when they needed to with the season on the line like they did is really impressive. They knew they still had a shot, and they didn’t quit.”
Ellsworth and Caribou entered the third inning tied at two runs apiece before the former plated another pair in the third to take the lead. Neither team produced much of a scoring threat over the next two innings as the Eagles’ Hunter Curtis and the Vikings’ Caleb Espling established rhythms on the mound.
Eleventh-ranked Caribou put Ellsworth (14-5) on notice in the top of the sixth as it put runners on first and second with no outs. Yet the Eagles ultimately escaped unharmed after David Baugh relieved Curtis and forced a double play and a lineout to end the inning.
Caribou, though, would find its breakthrough in the seventh as it produced a two-out rally to take a 6-4 lead. With the Vikings (9-10) taking advantage of a base hit, an error, two hit batters and two walks in at-bats in which Baugh looked certain to have thrown strike three, second-ranked Ellsworth went from being on the cusp of victory to facing elimination.
Down to its last three outs, Ellsworth began the bottom of the seventh with base hits from Baugh and Curtis. The Eagles then got an RBI single from Peter Keblinsky to move within a run before Caribou intentionally walked Craig Burnett to load the bases with no outs.
“We told David after [the top of] the inning that we were going to have his back, and that’s what we did,” Ellsworth’s Nate Smith said. “He came through with a clutch single of his own to get things started for us, and we all got behind each other and rallied together.”
Smith tied the game in the following at-bat with a sacrifice fly to left field that allowed Curtis to score with ease. That set the stage for Palmer, who smacked a base hit to left to score pinch-runner Brody Mercier and prompt an Ellsworth celebration in the infield.
“We were upset after they came back, and we wanted to take out our frustration on the ball,” Palmer said. “I just saw [a pitch] that was right down the pipe, and I knew right when I saw it that that was the one.”
Palmer, who had entered the game in a bit of an offensive slump, had previously ended the fifth inning after fouling out to first on a pitch out of the zone. After that at-bat, in which he felt as if he had let his team down, the junior was more determined than ever to deliver in the clutch.
“Michael Palmer is one of the toughest kids we have,” Curtis said. “He has been steadfast at third base for us the whole season, and he’s been on the verge of getting the bat going. He’s been working hard at that, and today, his confidence was through the roof.”
The win means Ellsworth will be making its third consecutive appearance in the Class B North championship game. The Eagles fell to Brewer in the 2018 final and defeated Hermon to win the 2019 crown before the cancellation of the 2020 season prevented the team from defending its title.
Although Ellsworth does have a few faces from those title runs remaining, the Eagles have made this run to the regional final with a squad that’s undergone a major overhaul. Yet even with a brand-new pitching staff and a vastly different lineup, Ellsworth is set to make another appearance in a game that’s become a familiar one for the team and its fans.
“We have great kids, and I really like where we are as a program,” Curtis said. “I like to think we’re reloading rather than rebuilding at this point, and that’s a credit to these kids and all the work they put in to be successful.”
Ellsworth will face top-ranked Old Town (14-4) in the regional championship game at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Old Town earned a 7-6 walk-off win of its own Saturday afternoon as it defeated Mount Desert Island in the other Class B North semifinal.
Old Town defeated Ellsworth in both regular season meetings between the two teams. Yet few teams anywhere are hotter than the Eagles, who have now won five games in a row and eight of their past nine.
“In baseball, a team never beats another three times,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we’ve got some luck on our side, but I think we’ve got a lot of skill on our side as well.”