Eau Claire, Wis.— A pair of two-run home runs carried the Express to a 5-1 win over the MoonDogs at the Frank in Mankato, MN on Saturday night. Express starter Brody Rodning pitched a seven-inning gem, giving up only one run in the penultimate game before Monday’s All-Star Break.
In his first game in a week, Ben Mezzenga led off the game with a ringing double to the outfield fence at Franklin Rogers Park. Josh Matheson did not allow the early hit to affect his pitching, retiring the next three batters he faced to hold the Express scoreless in the opening frame.
Rodning came out strong in his eighth start of the season, striking out two batters in the top of the first. Rodning tallied his third straight strikeout in the second, fanning Marcus Pingleton on three pitches. He wound up sending down the MoonDogs in order, holding Mankato without a hit through two innings.
Catcher Alex Tucker got the first hit of the game for the MoonDogs with a lead off single in the bottom of the third. Tucker scampered to third on a groundout, but would be tagged out in a run down after failing to tag up at third base on a fly ball by David Metzgar, giving Eau Claire its first double play of Saturday night’s contest.
The Express broke the scoreless tie in the top of the fourth on Austin Guzzo’s first home run of the season. With Kyle Marinconz on base with a one out walk, Guzzo smashed the second pitch he faced to deep right-center to give the Express a 2-0 lead. Chase Hamilton replied with a home run of his own in the bottom of the fourth to an identical part of the outfield, slicing the Eau Claire lead in half. Hamilton’s moon shot for the MoonDogs hit the scoreboard, which read 2-1 heading into the top of the fifth.
Both the Express and the MoonDogs left the bases loaded in the fifth inning. Two singles and a walk put runners on all three bags with two outs for Eau Claire, but Matheson forced a fly ball to keep his team within just one run of the top team in the Northwoods League. Three MoonDogs hitters reached in three different ways, a single, a walk, and an error, in the bottom half of the inning. Rodning struck out Alvaro Rubalcaba on a full count, his fifth strikeout of the game, to prevent Mankato from leveling the score following the halfway point in the North Division matchup.
Rodning and Matheson continued to battle through the sixth inning, each pitcher holding his own to maintain the 2-1 score line.
Reliever Kenny Varnell got in trouble quickly against the heart of the Express lineup, with Mezzenga reaching on a lead off single to right field. With two-outs and Mezzenga still stuck on first, Alex McKenna slapped a two-run home run to left-center field to give the Express a 4-1 advantage. McKenna has hit three two-run home runs in three days, proving to be a difference maker as the cleanup hitter for one of the top offenses in the Northwoods League. McKenna’s home run sparked life into the Express bats, with walks to Guzzo and Marinconz putting two runners on the base paths. Daniel Herrera lined a single over the outstretched glove of Drew Fearing at second base, forcing a pitching change as Varnell was replaced by Dalton Lehnen for the final out.
Rodning would complete the seventh for the Express, allowing only one run back on the solo home run in the fourth. The right-hander would leave the game in position to earn his third win of the season, giving up six hits, walking two batters, and fanning six MoonDogs. Dylan Smith pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning to hold the four-run lead headed to the final frame.
Christian Tripp allowed two hits in the bottom of the ninth, but ended the game without any damage to the score line in a non-save opportunity. Guzzo had an excellent game at the plate, with the eventual game-winning two-run home run as one of his two hits. McKenna continued his streak with a homer in his third consecutive game.
Ryan Hamilton will start on the mound for the first half North Division champion Eau Claire Express in the final game before the three-day All-Star break tomorrow night at 6:05 p.m. The right-handed junior from Augustana will make his eighth start against these same Mankato MoonDogs, who have been one of the top teams from the plate in the second half so far. Hamilton will look for his fourth win of the season, hoping as well to lower his ERA (4.15), and increase his solid strikeout total (19). Hamilton has been a strong member of this efficient pitching staff for the Express, factoring as a key member of the rotation as Eau Claire pursues a second half title.
The Eau Claire Express have won the Northwoods League North Division and have earned a trip to the playoffs for the first time since winning the Northwoods League Championship in 2010. They will host a playoff game at Carson Park on Monday August 15th 6:35pm. Group and individual game tickets are on sale now! Season tickets and single-game tickets for the regular season are also 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.