FREEPORT—After eight years, the Freeport baseball team returned to the postseason Tuesday afternoon and had the visiting Cape Elizabeth Capers up against the ropes in the bottom of the first inning.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the Capers were able to counter with the poised, potent right arm of senior hurler Will LeBlond.
With the bases loaded, two outs and a full count on Freeport junior designated hitter Nick Cartmell, the game turned as LeBlond threw a close pitch that Cartmell took. If it was a ball, the Falcons would have had the lead and momentum.
Instead, it was ruled a strike and Freeport never seriously threatened again.
Cape Elizabeth pushed across two runs in the top of the second, added one more in the fourth and another in the sixth and LeBlond did the rest, scattering four hits and striking out six as the Capers went on to a 4-0 victory.
Cape Elizabeth ended the Falcons’ best season in nine years at 10-7, improved to 9-8 and set up a quarterfinal round showdown at ancient rival Greely Thursday at 4 p.m.
“We hoped to win enough games to make the playoffs and see what happened,” said Capers coach Chris Hayward. “I thought going in we’d have really good pitching and defense. If we’d score some runs, we’d be all right. We’re working hard to make things a little bit better in our favor and it’s going all right so far.”
Tuesday morning, it seemed unlikely the game would be played as three days of rain turned the Freeport field into a quagmire, but Mother Nature cooperated and the field was treated and deemed playable, allowing the Falcons to host a playoff game for the first time in a decade.
Freeport’s core of three seniors lost a total of 37 games their first three seasons, but were rewarded for their hard work this spring.
The Falcons got off to a terrific start, beating visiting Yarmouth (11-1, in five innings), visiting York (5-4, in eight innings), host Cape Elizabeth (7-3), host York (5-3) and visiting Old Orchard Beach (6-5) before finally falling at Gray-New Gloucester, 5-0. Freeport then became the first team to give reigning regional champion Greely a scare before falling, 4-2. The Falcons bounced back with home wins over Traip (11-1, in five innings) and Poland (6-2) before dropping a nine-inning heartbreaker at Falmouth (5-4) and falling at home to Cape Elizabeth (4-2). Freeport then rediscovered its winning ways on the road, triumphing at Wells (8-5), Lake Region (15-2, in five innings) and Yarmouth (7-0). The Falcons’ bats would go silent at the worst possible time, however, and they closed with home losses to Fryeburg (2-1, in nine innings, in a game in which they struck out 15 times) and Falmouth (12-2).
Freeport’s 10-6 record was the program’s best since back-to-back 11-5 marks in 2002 and 2003 (when they still played in Class C) and the Falcons earned the No. 8 seed for the tournament.
Cape Elizabeth, which was upset by Falmouth in last year’s quarterfinals, and featured a much less experienced nucleus this spring, was competitive throughout.
The Capers rolled at Old Orchard Beach in the opener, 10-0, in five innings. After falling at Falmouth, 10-5, they beat visiting Gray-New Gloucester, 7-1 before losing to visiting Freeport, 7-3, and at Greely, 8-0. Three wins in a nine-day span (2-0 over visiting York, 12-0 in five innings at Wells and 7-6 in eight innings at home over Fryeburg), interrupted by four rainouts, followed. Visiting Yarmouth then handed Cape Elizabeth a 14-3 five inning setback, but the Capers responded with a 4-2 victory at Freeport. They then lost four straight, 3-1 at Lake Region, 2-1 to visiting Wells, a 9-8 eight inning heartbreaker at Yarmouth and 4-2 at home to Falmouth, but Cape Elizabeth closed with a 17-1 five inning home win over Waynflete and a 3-0 eight inning triumph at Poland to earn the No. 9 seed.
The teams had no prior playoff history.
Tuesday, under first warm and sunny, then increasingly cloudy skies, the Capers continued their late-season surge and squashed the Falcons’ hopes.
Both teams had great opportunities to seize control in the first inning, but each left the bases loaded.
After junior centerfielder Connor Maguire struck out against Freeport senior ace Sawyer Williams to start the top of the first, senior leftfielder Max Gore singled up the middle and junior Chris Robicheaw followed with a ringing double over the head of Falcons junior leftfielder Cole Harrison, putting runners at second and third. LeBlond then appeared to be hit by a 3-2 pitch, but home plate umpire Dan Boomhour ruled he didn’t try to get out of the way. It was ball four regardless and LeBlond went to first with a base on balls loading the bags.
Williams managed to extricate himself from the jam as junior designated hitter Sam Kozlowski hit a harmless fly ball to junior shortstop Connor Dietrich and junior catcher Seth Dobieski grounded into a force out to end the inning.
The bottom of the first began like the top as senior catcher Jared Knighton struck out, but Dietrich lined a single the other way into right. LeBlond picked him off, but senior centerfielder Luke LaMagna squibbed a ball down the third base line that stayed fair for an infield single and with LaMagna going, a grounder up the middle off the bat of senior Josh Weirich resulted in another infield single. Senior first baseman Kaleb Farmer then reached on an error, setting the stage for Cartmell’s at-bat, which ended with the called third strike.
“We like having ‘Big’ on the mound,” said Hayward. “If he was here another year, I’d probably start calling him ‘Big Houdini’ instead of just ‘Big,’ because he does a nice job getting out of jams. He threw a shutout early in the year and didn’t have a single 1,2, 3 inning.”
“You have give LeBlond a ton of credit,” said Freeport coach Hank Ogilby. “We had our chances early in the game. We could have changed the nature of the game, but didn’t. We talked about not going down looking. That pitch was close enough. That was tough. Early in a game you never know how a game can change.”
The visitors pounced in the top of the second and took the lead for good.
Junior rightfielder Zach Culver led off by doubling to the gap in right-center. A wild pitch moved him to third and junior shortstop Charlie Laprade drove him home when Harrison couldn’t quite get to his long fly ball which resulted in a double. Senior second baseman Matty Pierce then beat out a bunt and a wild throw allowed Laprade to score Cape Elizabeth’s second run.
LeBlond settled down in the bottom half, striking out junior third baseman Dan Burke and getting Harrison and senior second baseman Pat LaFlamme to ground out.
Williams hit Dobieski with two outs in the top of the third and wild pitched him to second, but worked out of it by striking out Culver.
In the bottom half, Freeport appeared to have something going when Knighton doubled down the leftfield line leading off, but Dietrich flew to center, LaMagna lined softly to third and Weirich popped out to Laprade at short.
In the top of the fourth, the Capers scored again.
The rally came with two outs and began with an innocuous fly ball to left of the bat of Maguire, which fell in for a bloop double. After Williams balked Maguire to third, Gore singled to right and it was 3-0.
LeBlond set the Falcons down in order in the bottom of the fourth, helped by a nice tag play at first by junior Chris Peterson after a wide throw.
With one out in the top of the fifth, Williams walked Dobieski and that was it for his day. Ogilby replaced Williams with Weirich, who gave up a two-out single to Laprade, but got Pierce to ground out to third to end the frame.
In the bottom half, LeBlond fanned Harrison and got LaFlamme to ground out and Knighton to pop out to end it.
Cape Elizabeth pushed its lead to 4-0 in the top of the sixth.
With one down, Gore singled to center and Robicheaw followed with a base hit to left, moving Gore to second. After LeBlond flew out deep to left, Weirich moved the runners up with a wild pitch. After Kozlowski walked, Weirich threw another wild pitch with Dobieski at the plate and Gore came home with an insurance run.
LeBlond worked around a one-out walk to LaMagna in the bottom half.
In the top of the seventh, senior rightfielder Zach Greene made a nice diving catch to rob junior pinch-hitter Brett Parker leading off. After Laprade reached on an error, Weirich picked off senior pinch-runner Donald Clark. Weirich then retired the final batter he’d face in his high school career, striking out Pierce.
That left it up to LeBlond in the bottom of the seventh.
Cartmell led off and flew harmlessly to right. Next was Burke, who went down swinging. After fouling off a few pitches to delay the inevitable, Harrison ended it by flying to left and Cape Elizabeth celebrated its 4-0 victory.
“It has been different this year,” Gore said. “In past years, we had guys who played varsity for two, three years. This year, we don’t have much experience except Will. It’s been tough. It’s taken us all 16 regular season games to figure things out, but I think we’ve got things going. It’s all about executing and playing good defense.”
LeBlond improved to 6-2 with the four-hit, one-walk shutout. He struck out six and got progressively more dominant as the afternoon went on.
“It wasn’t so much struggling (in the first inning), we just had some tough plays,” said LeBlond. “I really found a groove. I was definitely nervous in the first inning, it’s playoffs, but I really started having fun and it was easy after that. Seth called a good game. We had 0-2 a lot so we could get in the hitter’s heads a little bit. I felt like I had good stuff.”
“Today, he went through three or four innings in a row where he mowed them down,” said Hayward. “He was really good today. He can throw off-speed. He changes speeds for strikes. He buys into what we’ve taught him. He’s very good.”
“His changeup, as the game went on, was the best straight changeup we’ve seen all year,” Ogilby said. “We didn’t know what to do with it. We got out on our front foot. We swung at his pitches instead of ours. He got ahead of counts and forced situations. He did a masterful job. He settled down, our guys lost energy and it didn’t work out.”
The 11-hit offense was paced by Gore and Robicheaw, who both had three hits.
“We swung the bat really well,” said Gore. “We saw the ball out of (the pitcher’s) hands really well. There was a tough play in leftfield and that sort of broke it open for us. From there, it was timely hitting, two-out hits.”
Laprade added a pair of hits. Culver, Laprade, Maguire and Robicheaw all had doubles. Culver, Gore, Laprade and Maguire all scored. Gore and Laprade had RBI.
For Freeport, Knighton doubled, but other than that the bats struggled.
Williams fell to 5-3 on the season after giving up three runs (two earned) on eight hits in 4.1 innings. He walked one, struck out four, threw two wild pitches, hit a batter and also committed a balk.
“Sawyer was atypical today,” said Ogilby. “He was behind in the count a lot, which is not usual for him. I think he and Jared weren’t always on the same page as to what pitch to call.”
Weirich gave up one earned run on three hits and a walk in 2.2 innings. He fanned three and threw two wild pitches.
“(Cape) did a nice job defensively and got enough hits to do the job,” said Ogilby. “We made a couple errors and didn’t get to a ball in the outfield. I think we could’ve stopped a couple runs, but we didn’t stop any so they still would’ve won.”
The Falcons didn’t finish as strongly as they hoped, but the 2012 season was an unmitigated success nonetheless.
“It’s been fun,” Ogilby said. “What I like to see as a coach is (the guys) play a high level of baseball and have success in an competitive atmosphere. They deserved that. The seniors deserved this chance. It didn’t work out the way anybody wanted, but we got to play at home with a nice crowd hooting and hollering. We had some injuries and other issues as the end, but the coach has to take responsibility. We weren’t moving forward, especially at the plate.”
Even though 10 key contributors are departing, it isn’t wise to write off the 2013 Falcons.
“People don’t talk about this very often, but our entire infield is underclassmen,” said Ogilby. “We’ll field almost the same infield. Our pitching will be solid. Sawyer is a huge loss, but Danny Burke is a good pitcher. We have a couple JV pitchers I like. Actually, I feel pretty positive about next year.”
As for Cape Elizabeth, it will get a chance to upset the preseason favorite, 15-1 Greely, which lost by a single run in last year’s Class B state final. The Capers dropped the regular season meeting, but the lower seeded team has a history of winning in the playoffs when these two square off. Greely has taken five of the previous nine meetings, but Cape Elizabeth captured the last one, 4-3, in eight innings, in the 2010 semifinals.
With Kozlowski on the mound, the Capers go into the contest knowing they have nothing to lose.
“We know ‘Sam K’ is going to throw well,” Gore said. “If we can just stop them and push across a couple runs, that’s all it’s going take. He’s a quality pitcher and we know he’ll bring his good stuff.”
“We love being the underdogs,” LeBlond said. “It’s a lot of fun. We had the same kind of team four years ago that had to play a prelim then went on to play for a state title. We have a confident bunch in here. We’re playing well right know. We feel good about ourselves.”
“It’s always to our benefit when we get to play, so I’d rather be playing Greely than not,” Hayward added. “I bet they don’t care. They’re probably licking their lips. They have three guys who can throw 85 or more. We’ll gear up in practice and see what we can do. We’ll shorten swings and try to put the bat on the ball and scratch a couple runs. Kozlowski’s pitched better and better as the year’s gone along. We’re playing with house money. Let it ride.”