Eau Claire, Wis.— The Express were the first team to shut out the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters this season, blanking the South Division first half Champions 4-0 behind seven scoreless innings from starter Ryan Zimmerman. Austin Guzzo hit his second home run of the season in the three-run seventh inning that gave the Express the win in the opening game of the day-night double-header at Witter Field.
Starters Ryan Zimmerman and Chris Cooper were in a heated pitching duel in the first third of Monday’s 12:05 p.m. matinee. Cooper, the undefeated South Division All-Star starter, held Eau Claire hitless for the first three innings, striking out three Express batters. Zimmerman matched Cooper’s dominance with three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit to start his first start for the Express this season.
Zach Ashford broke up Cooper’s no-hitter in the lead off spot of the fourth inning, dropping a perfect bunt single down the first base line. Ashford would advance all the way to third on a wild pitch and a groundout, but a strikeout and a flyout eliminated the first Eau Claire scoring threat of the game. Cooper retired three straight batters after a lead off hit again in the top of the fifth, when Rudy Rott slapped a single to left field to start the inning.
Zimmerman continued to deal on the mound, poised for a long outing with just 52 pitches through five complete innings. Zimmerman struck out a batter in the fourth and fifth, but allowed a walk with two-outs in the fifth to snap an eight batter no-hit streak. Zimmerman quickly forced a lineout to second base to end the inning with the score knotted at 0-0.
The Express put two runners aboard with no outs in the top of the sixth on back-to-back singles from shortstop Cody Bohanek and Ashford (bunt). Rafters catcher Rob Calabrese made two heads up plays in the inning, picking off Bohanek to eliminate the runner in scoring position, then throwing out Ashford stealing on a strikeout pitch for a double play to end the top of the sixth.
Following a lead off single by Logan Mattix, Zimmerman needed just four pitches to tally three outs and hold the scoreless tie in the bottom half of the sixth.
Daulton Varsho stood on third base with nobody out in the top of the seventh inning. The leading home run hitter in the Northwoods League drew a lead off walk, Cooper’s first of the day, stole second base, and scampered to third on a wild pitch ball four to Alex McKenna. The Express broke the scoreless tie on a sacrifice fly from Rott, allowing Varsho to tag up and cross home plate standing up.
Just one batter later, Austin Guzzo made it a three-run advantage with a two-run home run over the fence in right-center field. Guzzo’s second home run of the year gave Eau Claire a 3-0 lead against the top team in the South Division heading into the seventh inning stretch, following two strikeouts by Rafters’ reliever Reggie Johnson.
Varsho and Rott would combine yet again in the top of the eighth to extend the Eau Claire lead to 4-0. Varsho drew a full count, one-out walk from Johnson, advancing to second on a ground ball out from McKenna. Rott would get his second RBI of the game on a single to left-center that scored the speedy Varsho easily.
Kenny Ogg would take over for Zimmerman in the bottom half of the eighth, hoping to contain the dangerous Rapids offense in the first game of Monday’s double header. Zimmerman was excellent in his debut in the rotation, limiting the Rafters to three hits in seven complete innings, fanning two batters while pounding the strike zone with just one walk issued. Ogg pitched a flawless 1-2-3 eighth inning, striking out Lumley to send the game to the final frame with the Rafters needing a substantial rally to force extras at Witter Field.
The Rafters loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, sparked by a lead off double to the warning track in deep left field by pinch-hitter Joe Wainhouse. Two walks forced a pitching change for Dale Varsho’s squad, with Christian Tripp striking out Aldo Koutsoyanopulos swinging for out number two in the final frame of play. Tripp forced a ground ball out for the final out of the game, handing Wisconsin Rapids its first shut out of the 2016 season.
Rott led the Express offensively, driving in two runs on two hits. Guzzo matched Rott with two RBI’s on his second home run of the season in the three-run seventh inning that gave the Zimmerman his first win of the season. Zimmerman was dominant with seven shutout innings in the game.
Reagan MacDonald will start the 7:05 p.m. game, looking for his first win in his second start of the season. The 6’8 left-hander was credited with the loss on July 28th against the Mankato MoonDogs in three innings of work, despite only allowing one earned run. MacDonald has a 1.58 ERA in just 5.2 innings pitched for Eau Claire.
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.