Eau Claire, Wis.— The Eau Claire Express won the 2016 regular season finale in spectacular fashion on Sunday night, as Kyle Marinconz hit a walk off RBI single to clinch a 5-4 victory against the Duluth Huskies in the extra innings. Daulton Varsho set a new Express record in the win by hitting his 19th home run of his Eau Claire career. The Express will host the Mankato MoonDogs at Carson Park in tomorrow night’s Divisional Playoff game, with Caleb Boushley’s first pitch scheduled for 6:35 p.m.
Ryan Tapani, son of former World Series winner for the Minnesota Twins Kevin Tapani, got out to a dicey start when he was forced to pitch out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the first inning. Tapani struck out two batters and forced a fly out to end the inning after walking two batters and giving up a ground ball single.
The Huskies would jump out to an early 1-0 lead in the top of the second on a solo shot off the bat of Matt Brown. The Duluth catcher’s seventh home run of the season came off of Express starter Caleb Willems, to give the visitors an edge in the final game of the regular season. Willems rebounded in the top of the third by retiring two batters on pop-ups to strand a Duluth runner on third base.
The Express leveled the score in the bottom half of the third, capitalizing on a second bases loaded opportunity. Alex McKenna hit a soft ground ball up the third base line that allowed the speedy Zach Ashford to score after drawing a lead off walk. Tapani struck out a batter and force two harmless fly balls to hold the Express to one run in the inning.
Brown would continue to do damage to the Express, launching his second lead off solo home run of the game to left-center in the top of the fourth. The solo shot was nearly identical to his first home run, snatching the lead back for Duluth.
Daulton Varsho would rival Brown with a solo home run of his own, setting a new Express record for career home runs with 19. Varsho's 19th blast unseated Nick Addison as the franchise leader in home runs. Varsho’s 15th homer of the year was a deep drive to the right field corner to level the score at 2-2 in the fifth.
With the game knotted up, Joe Gonrowski entered the game to relieve Willems of his pitching duties. The left-hander allowed a base runner on a two-out walk, but left the Duluth player stranded on first with an inning ending fly to right. Willems would not get a decision in the game, leaving the game with a tied score line.
The Express retook the lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Ashford slapping a one-run single to shallow right to score Sam Hurt who was hit by a pitch to start the inning.
Two walks and a single by Tyler Duex loaded the bases for Duluth in the top of the seventh, forcing Dale Varsho to swap Gonrowski with Nick Davito, who had the difficult task of preserving a lead with ducks on the pond. Cody Bohanek made an outstanding diving stop at short to get a force out at second, but Brendan McClary would cross the plate on the RBI fielder’s choice to re-tie the game. A Jake Pries fly ball to deep center ended the inning, with the game locked at 3-3. Davito struck out two batters in the eighth to hold the tie game in place.
Dillon Paulson hit a go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth, making it back-to-back nights with a late home run to take a lead against Eau Claire. Paulson rocked the ball to right, where it promptly hit the foul pole to give the Huskies a 4-3 advantage with one frame remaining.
Varsho drew a four-pitch walk with one out in the bottom of the ninth, and advanced into scoring position on a Drew Mullinax balk. McKenna fought off three full count balls before lining a double down the third base line to drive in the tying run in Varsho. With the winning run standing on third base, Mullinax forced a pop-up and fanned Hurt to send the game to extras.
Davito pitched a 1-2-3 10th inning, punctuated by a strikeout looking to send Tyler Midas back to the dugout.
Bohanek would reach base in the bottom of the 10th, touching the bag safely on a fielding error by Mullinax on a well-struck bunt. Ashford blasted a double to the gap in right-center, but Bohanek would be held at third base. The winning run stood just 90 feet away. Kyle Marinconz settled into the box, fouled off the first pitch, then watched the next pitch miss for a ball. The Express designated hitter tracked the next pitch and slapped it just under the glove of Duluth’s second baseman, scoring Bohanek to clinch the walk-off win.
Davito picked up his first win of the season for four innings of relief. The right-hand hurler from Lewis University struck out three batters and allowed just one run, the solo home run that proved insignificant.
Varsho and Marinconz led the offensive charge in the season finale, with Marinconz getting the key RBI in the extra innings win. Varsho set a new Express career record with his solo home run in the fifth, and finished the game with two hits and two runs scored in three at bats.
Carson Park will be playoff central tomorrow night, as the Express take on the Mankato MoonDogs at 6:35 p.m. Caleb Boushley will get the call in Eau Claire’s first playoff game since 2010, entering as the winningest regular season pitcher in the Northwoods League this season. Boushley is coming into Monday’s playoff with strong momentum, winning his past two starts. On August 2nd, Boushley threw an eight-inning shut out of the Willmar Stingers and has given up just eight hits combined in his last two starts. Boushley combines elite control, exceptional movement, and fielding prowess to solidify himself as one of the top pitchers in the league. Boushley will get tested by Mankato, who possess one of the most dangerous offenses in the NWL, but on his day, Boushley can carve through any line-up with ease.
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.