By Nick Erickson, Media Relations
There's an old, philosophical saying that reads as follows: "Life is not a sprint. It's a marathon."
The 2014 Eau Claire Express, what Field Manager Dale Varsho called one of his most talented teams ever, jumped out to 7-2 starts in both the first and second half of the season to propel themselves in the thick of the playoff race all season.
But a few cold streaks down the stretch left the ballclub just short of the postseason, ending the year on Sunday with a record of 36-36.
Even though there was no trophy to hoist at the end of the year, plenty of big moments highlighted the team's 10th season in the Northwoods League.
Eau Claire took advantage of temporary players and Division II and III products early on in the season to get hot right away at the end of May and in early June.
A 7-2 start included a sweep of the Lakeshore Chinooks at Carson Park. The Chinooks finished the regular season with 50 wins and .704 winning percentage. They also won both the first and second half of the league.
It was the Tyler Hermann show early on for the orange and black. He found himself near the top of the league in batting for the majority of June, getting up to as high as .380 at one point.
During this stretch, the Express got strong pitching performances from Jeremy Bagnall, Ian Doughty and Austin Stroschein out of the bullpen to keep the team in almost every game.
But Eau Claire cooled off considerably and fell fairly far behind the first-half champion Willmar Stingers before the big bats of Daniel Salters, Brian Mundell and Jeff Hendrix along with the gloves of Drew Turbin and Peter Van Gansen showed up to Carson Park.
Salters, who would finish the year as the team leader in hitting at .327 with seven home runs and a team-high 40 RBIs, made his presence known early. In his 10th day in Eau Claire, he crushed a walk-off home run against the St. Cloud Rox on June 20. It climbed halfway up the second to last pine tree in right-center field, making it unarguably the longest roundtripper at the ballpark in 2014.
Ultimately, it was too much ground for the Express to make up, and they fell 7.5 games back of Willmar to end the first half.
But the ball club went on its hottest stretch to start the second half. They won seven in a row from July 5 to July 11, including a four-game sweep of the Alexandria Blue Anchors. The Express finished the year 8-0 against that team.
During that stretch, Oregon State outfielder Hendrix clubbed three of his five home runs to lead what was a potent offense during that time.
“First of all, I’ll remember the guys. Win or lose, really good character guys." — Field Manager Dale Varsho
“It’s been really run with all of the team chemistry, we all get along really well. The coaching staff, it’s been great. The fans are awesome out here and the city of Eau Claire has been great hosts to us.” — Brian Mundell
“It’s been an absolute blast, great team and great teammates. I’m definitely going to miss it.” — Daniel Salters
“It’s been an awesome summer, I wouldn’t trade this for any other summer, really. I’m so thankful they invited me to come out here. It’s been really fun.” — Jeff Hendrix
But once again down the stretch, arms that were so effective in the first half of the year became tired or were forced to be shut down, and the offense could never quite all get hot enough at the same time to make an even bigger run.
A lineup switch where Mundell moved to third in the order gave the offense and team one last spark to make a charge at the end. Mundell wound up hitting a team-high nine home runs on the year, most of them coming late in the season.
Ultimately, the orange and black fell 2.5 games back of first-place Mankato to end the second half.
Conner Rusch led the team with a 2.43 ERA on the mound. Salters led with a .327 batting average, and his 40 RBIs were third most in team history. Mundell's nine home runs were also third best.
The Express had plenty of individual accolades to make up for the lack of a team one, however.
Salters and Hermann both represented the team at the Northwoods League All-Star Game on July 22 in Mequon. Salters started at catcher for the North squad and went 1-for-2 in the contest. Hermann came in the game as a reserve, but he knocked out a home run in the Home Run Challenge earlier in the day. Both players were also named Postseason All-Stars.
Twelve players (Salters, Hermann, Mundell, Hendrix, Van Gansen, Brent Gibbs, Taylor Duree, Travis Neubeck, Ian Doughty, Orlando Meza, Aron McRee and CJ Eldred) were chosen to play in the Big League Dreams Showcase Game in Madison on August 5. The event gathered the top 100 professional prospects in the Northwoods League.
The Express also increased its attendance from 2013 and led the North Division in terms of filling seats by averaging 2,039 fans a night. It was capped off by a record-setting 5,684 on June 17 against Duluth. There were also 5,016 people who came through the turnstiles on the Fourth of July.
Van Gansen tied a team record, previously held solo by 2014 first-round draft pick Casey Gillaspie during the 2012 season, by drawing a walk in 40 plate appearances.
Brady Burzynski also tied Josh Scheffert's 2012 record by playing in 68 games.
Until 2015, All Aboard, Express fans!