Eau Claire, Wis.— Express starter Ryan Hamilton pitched a gem in Eau Claire’s 2-0 victory over the Waterloo Bucks. With a sweep against the Bucks at Carson Park, the Express hold a 23-11 overall record, putting them just half game back of the St. Cloud Rox for first place in the North Division with only two games remaining in the first half of the season.
The first two batters reached safely against Hamilton, putting the Bucks in a position to score early. Robert Neustrom hit a ground ball single to load the bases with no outs in the inning. Hamilton pitched out of the jam, forcing a fly ball that was not deep enough to score a run, and striking out two Bucks to hold Waterloo off the score board in the first frame.
Kyle Marinconz got the first hit of the ball game for Eau Claire, lining a lead off single to shallow left field in the top of the third. Shortstop Cody Bohanek grounded a single between the Waterloo shortstop and third baseman to put runners on the corners with one out. Bohanek later fooled Bucks’ starter Brett Solano and stole second on a pick off attempt to third base. Solano issued a full-count walk to load the bases with Zach Ashford at the plate. Ashford reached first on a fielder’s choice, scoring Marinconz to give the Express a 1-0 lead after three innings.
A single off the bat of Zach Weatherford and an error put the Bucks in a threatening position in the top of the fifth, with runners positioned at first and third with just one out. Hamilton pitched out of another tough situation, striking out Taylor Boyd for the second out and forcing a fly out to end his fifth scoreless inning on the mound.
The Express threatened to widen their gap heading into the final three innings at Carson Park. Daulton Varsho and Ashford led off the inning with two singles. Austin Guzzo laid down a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt to put both runners in scoring position, and Rudy Rott was intentionally walked to load the bases for the second time in the contest. However, Solano turned a double play to hold the Express scoreless.
Kenny Ogg replaced Hamilton on the mound in the top of the seventh, preserving the shut out for Eau Claire’s pitching staff. Hamilton completed six scoreless innings on the mound in his best start of the season. The right-hander from Augustana allowed no runs on five hits and struck out three batters.
In the bottom of the seventh, Mickey McDonald and Bohanek each reached base on consecutive errors by the Waterloo Bucks. Solano was relieved on the mound by Hunter Spencer, who struck out Ben Mezzenga and forced a ground out to end the inning without allowing a run.
The Express added a run in the bottom of the eighth inning, extending Eau Claire’s lead to 2-0 with just one inning remaining in the vital North Division matchup. Pinch hitter Alex McKenna led off the inning with a shallow fly ball single to center field, and crossed the plate on a Rott double down the first base line.
With the added run support, Christian Tripp retired the Bucks in order to tally his fourth save of the season. Tripp struck out one batter and forced two ground outs to seal the shut out win. Hamilton earned his third win of the season, and Solano was credited with the loss.
Ashford went 1-4 from the plate, but had the game-winning fielder’s choice back in the third inning. Rott continued to display his power, driving in a one-run double to deep right field to give the Express a key insurance run late in the game.
The Express will play in-state rivals, the La Crosse Loggers, on the fourth of July holiday. With just two games left in the first half of the season, the Express are in desperate need of victories hoping to clinch an automatic postseason bid for late August. Michael Gomez hopes to bounce back from a one-inning outing against Wisconsin Rapids. Gomez has started twice, holding an 0-1 record with a 7.20 ERA in five innings pitched. A victory in the Independence Day game would give manager Dale Varsho his league-record 400th win.
Season tickets and single-game tickets are on sale now for Express home games. All tickets can be purchased by calling the Express office at 715-839-7788 or by stopping at the downtown office at 102 E. Grand Ave.
The Eau Claire Express are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. Playing its 23rd season of summer collegiate baseball, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 18 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, more than 150 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (CWS), Jordan Zimmermann (DET), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Lucas Duda (NYM) and Ben Zobrist (CHC). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit www.eauclaireexpress.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store and set the Express as your favorite team.