Eau Claire, Wis.— The Eau Claire Express fell to the Duluth Huskies 6-5 in the second to last game of the 2016 regular season. A late Duluth home run proved to be the difference in the game, as the Express fell to 44-27 on the year. The Express will close out the season tomorrow night with a rematch against the Huskies at 5:05 p.m., looking for a victory to spark positive momentum heading into Monday’s first round playoff game.
The Huskies drew first blood in the battle of the St. Thomas starting pitchers, as Dillon Paulson hit a gapper to right-center to drive in the first run of the game. Paulson’s first inning double scored Tyler Duex, who scampered all the way from first base after reaching on a four pitch walk from Ryan Zimmerman.
Daniel Amaral would extend the lead in the top of the second, hitting a fly ball home run over the fence in right field. Amaral’s first home run of the season came with a runner on base, punishing Zimmerman a second time for walking a Huskies’ batter and giving Duluth an early 3-0 lead.
Sam Hurt would put the Express on the scoreboard in emphatic fashion in the bottom half of the second, hitting a triple off the wall in right field. Rudy Rott stood on first after a one-out infield single, but would quickly cross the plate on Hurt’s team-high fourth triple of the season. The Express would close the gap further in the bottom of the third, with Cody Bohanek tagging up from third on a Daulton Varsho sacrifice fly to deep center field. Bohanek drew a walk off of Drew Molin, a recurring theme in the game, and advance on a bunt single by Zach Ashford. Varsho picked up his 61st RBI on the play, the second highest total in the NWL this year, to cut the lead to one run (3-2).
Zimmerman benefited from strong defense in back-to-back innings in the fourth in fifth, with two inning ending double plays eliminating base runners. In the fifth, Varsho caught a fly ball in right and gunned down a tagging Duluth player attempting to take second.
Varsho would increase his single season record RBI total in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game at three runs apiece. Ashford got his second single of the game with one out and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Varsho slapped a double deep in the gap in left-center, scoring the speedy Ashford to level the score.
Zimmerman forced two fly outs in the sixth, but was replaced by Ryan Hamilton for the third and final out of the inning. Hamilton got the job done with a fly ball to center field to cap off the 1-2-3 inning.
The Huskies would also switch pitchers in the sixth, with Ryan Cunningham making his debut on the mound for Duluth. Alex McKenna introduced Cunningham to the Northwoods League with a deep solo home run pulled over the left field fence. McKenna has now homered in back-to-back games, his 8th of the season gifting the Express a 4-3 lead against the Huskies. A Connor Olson sacrifice fly to left doubled the Express advantage in the inning. David Kroger fared better than Cunningham in relief, sending the Express down in order inn the seventh.
Duluth retook the lead with nobody out in the top of the eighth. Daniel Amaral and Tyler Duex reached on back-to-back singles to lead off the inning as Paulson entered the batter’s box. Paulson watched ball one, but clobbered the second pitch he saw over the tall outfield fence in right center. The three-run bomb gave Duluth a 6-5 lead late in the penultimate game of the 2016 season.
Kroger had another flawless inning, aided by McKenna being thrown out attempting to swipe second. Following the caught stealing, Kroger struck out the next two batters he faced to preserve the one run advantage headed to the ninth.
Connor Olson put the pressure on in the bottom of the ninth, ripping a sharp double over the outstretched glove of Amaral in center field. Olson moved to third base, standing just 90 feet away from forcing extra innings on a Bohanek ground out. However, Kroger got the groundout he needed with two-outs, ending the game without allowing Olson to cross home.
McKenna was the offensive standout for Eau Claire, hitting his eighth homer of the year to give the Express a lead in the sixth. Varsho led the team with two RBI’s on one hit, and Rott finished the narrow loss 1-3 with two runs scored.
Caleb Willems will get the start in the regular season finale for Dale Varsho’s Eau Claire Express, pitching against these Duluth Huskies tomorrow at 5:05 p.m. The righty from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is making his first start of the year, appearing in two games as a reliever after being added to the team in early August. Willems holds a 1-0 overall record with a 3.00 ERA, allowing one earned run in three total innings pitched. He has given up three hits against 13 batters faced, with one strikeout on his season stat line. Willems will be tasked with sparking positive momentum as the Express head into the postseason on Monday night.
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.