Eau Claire, Wis.— The Express fell to the Mankato MoonDogs 6-4 in an extra innings battle between two of the top teams in the Northwoods League. Daulton Varsho retook his lead in the Northwoods League with his 11th home run of the season, and Zach Ashford hit a key RBI double to send the game to extras. The contest required 12 innings to decide a winner, with two runs in the top of the 12th proving to be the difference.
Jon Roblez, Eau Claire’s starting pitcher, struck out two MoonDogs’ batters swinging in the top of the first, jumping out to an impressive smart against the team that looked unstoppable in last night’s contest.
The game started out perfectly for Eau Claire on offense as well, as Daulton Varsho reclaimed his lead atop the Northwoods League with his 11th home run of the year. The solo shot sailed over the fence in the deepest part of Carson Park, clearing the wall just to the left side of the scoreboard to give the Express an early 1-0 lead.
The MoonDogs came firing back, taking a 2-1 lead in the top of the second. Jordan Kozicky lined a single to left field with one out, and was quickly joined by Alex Tucker (fielder’s choice) and Alvaro Rubalcaba (hit-by-pitch). David Metzgar, one of the top hitters in the NWL blasted a two-run double to the corner in left field off Roblez, who bounced back with his third strikeout to end the inning.
Mankato would add two runs to their lead in the top of the third after three straight batters reached base to start the inning. Jake Shepski drew a lead off walk, advancing to third on a single by Bryce Adams. Jordan Washam drove Shepski home on a sharply hit RBI single to right field. Marcus Pingleton closed out the scoring with an one-run groundout to short, extending the visiting team’s advantage to 4-1 after 2.5 innings of play.
The Express loaded the base with no outs in the bottom of the fourth on three straight singles by Varsho, Zach Ashford, and Rudy Rott. Kyle Marinconz hit a strong ground ball up the middle for a force out at second, but Marinconz legged out the throw at first on an RBI fielder’s choice. Right fielder Jared Mang lined a one-run single off the thigh of Mankato starter Tyler Lesley, cutting the MoonDog lead to one run.
Roblez struck out three batters in two innings to keep the MoonDogs within striking distance halfway through the intense North Division matchup. The Alabama State right-hander retired the MoonDogs in order in the top of the sixth on just seven pitches, his final inning of the game.
Sean Maher came into the game for the top of the seventh, using his baffling side arm delivery style with a scoreless inning. Maher ran into a tough bases loaded situation after two walks and a Shepski single, but struck out two Mankato batters looking to maintain the 4-3 score line.
Lesley completed 6.2 innings for the MoonDogs before being replaced by Cooper Powell who pitched 1.2 innings in last night’s blow out win. Powell has been excellent out of the pen for Mankato this year, with a 1.53 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 17.2 innings pitched. Lesley’s final stat line was quite impressive, with three runs allowed on seven hits, using his fastball and breaking pitches with expert control throughout the game.
The left-handed reliever ran into trouble early in the bottom of the eighth, walking lead off hitter Cody Bohanek. Ashford hit a deep fly ball over the Mankato center fielder, with the ball rolling all the way to the fence. Ashford would cruise into second with a game-tying RBI double. Brian Gadsby replaced Powell on the rubber and promptly stranded two runners with a ground out for the final out of the inning, the score knotted at 4-4.
Maher struck out the first two batters he faced in the top of the ninth, and forced a pop fly off the bat of Shepski, the top hitter in the league, to give the Express a chance to walk off as winners in regulation. Gadsby responded with a 1-2-3 inning of his own to send the game to extra innings.
Christian Tripp, the primary closer for the Express, pitched a hitless top of the 10th, striking out the first two MoonDogs he faced and forcing a pop fly, replicating Maher’s strong ninth inning.
Ashford continued his excellent night at the plate in the bottom of the 10th, lining a double into the corner in left field. The hit landed just inches inside fair territory, putting a runner in scoring position with two outs. Gadsby, however, eliminated the threat with a pop fly.
Tripp struck out the first two batters for a second straight inning in the top of the 11th, holding the 4-4 score with a fly out to Rott at first for the final out of the inning.
Marinconz’s first hit of the game came up in the perfect moment for the Express. The Cal Poly freshman was inches away from clearing the wall in right field, but the ball bounced off the fence and the speedy Marinconz wheeled around second, sliding safely into third with a lead off triple. Two intentional walks to Mang and Mickey McDonald loaded the bases in the bottom of the 11th. McKenna ripped a sharp line drive up the middle, but Gadsby displayed exceptional reflexes, snagging the sure single out of the air to send the game to the 12th.
The MoonDogs finally got to Tripp in the top of the 12th, after a Shepski single (his third of the game, sparked a rally for Mankato. Adams reached successfully on a single of his own before a Washam double off the fence in right-center gave the MoonDogs a 5-4 lead. A second run scored to make it 6-4 on a wild pitch from Tripp, who rebounded with two strikeouts to end the inning.
The Express could not muster one last rally in the game, falling to the MoonDogs in the 12th to complete the sweep. Ashford was the player of the game for the Express, finishing the extra innings battle 3-6 with the game-tying RBI to send the game to extras. Varsho went 3-4, drawing two intentional walks to add to his pair of singles and his NWL-best 11th home run of the season.
The Express will complete their three game home stand with the front end of a home and home series against the Rochester Honkers at 6:35 p.m. tomorrow night. Jameson Lavery will make just his second start of the summer for manager Dale Varsho, looking to level his record at 1-1 on the season. Lavery last pitched against hot hitting Willmar Stingers on July 26th, completing 1.2 innings of work with three earned runs allowed in his first decision of the summer. The right-hander from UW-La Crosse has a 4.21 ERA with six strikeouts in 10.2 innings pitched.
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.