Eau Claire, Wis.— The Eau Claire Express defeated the Mankato MoonDogs 5-1 on Monday night to advance to the second round of the Northwoods League Playoffs. Caleb Boushley, the top pitcher for the Express this season, pitched a gem in the postseason win, allowing just one run on four hits to earn his league best ninth win of the season. The Express will travel to St. Cloud, MN to take on the Rox at Joe Faber field tomorrow night, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. as the two North Division teams compete for a spot in the 2016 Northwoods League Championship.
Express ace Caleb Boushley allowed a single on the second pitch of the game to Jake Shepski, this year’s Northwoods League MVP. Boushley rebounded and proved why he was the winningest regular season pitcher in the league this season, striking out one batter and retiring the next two batters he faced to strand Shepski at second.
The Express would convert with their runner on base in the first, jumping out to an early lead in the first round playoff game. Kyle Marinconz was the first Eau Claire base runner, reaching on a one out fly ball double in the bottom of the first. Marinconz would tag up and advance to third on a Daulton Varsho fly ball. Alex McKenna opened the scoring with a sharp line drive RBI single to give Eau Claire a 1-0 lead after one inning.
Boushley would leave another runner on second in the top half of the second inning, notching his second strikeout of the game to end the inning. First baseman Bryce Adams reached in the lead off spot on a throwing error, but Boushley buckled down and retired the next three batters to hold the slim lead. Boushley pitched a 1-2-3 third inning, fanning his third batter in as many innings.
McKenna proved he is much more than just an offensive talent, making two spectacular diving catches in the top of the fourth inning to preserve Boushley’s shut out and end another hitless inning for the Express starter.
The MoonDogs would get a break through in the top of the fifth, with a lead off single to center by Gavin Wehby. Drew Fearing dropped down a sacrifice bunt to move Wehby into scoring position. With two outs and two strikes in the count, Alvaro Rubalcaba hit a sharp line drive down the first base line to score Wehby and level the score at 1-1 at the halfway point in the playoff match-up.
The tie would not last long, as the Express snatched the lead back from Mankato in the bottom half of the inning. Austin Guzzo drew a one out walk to ignite the offense, and was quickly joined by Sam Hurt who hit a single. Cody Bohanek hit a rocket to center field, over the Mankato center fielder’s head, scoring Guzzo on the one-run double. Zach Ashford would double the lead on an RBI single through the infield to give Eau Claire a 3-1 lead. The scoring would not end there, as last night’s hero Marinconz got his second hit of the game, a single to shallow left, to drive in the third run of the inning.
Boushley had another flawless inning on the rubber in the top of the sixth, using just seven pitches to send down the MoonDogs in order. Boushley struck out designated hitter Chase Hamilton swinging in the inning for his fourth "K" of the game. The right-handed ace from UW-La Crosse pitched another hitless frame in the top of the seventh, continuing his dominant postseason performance.
Christian Tripp took over on the mound for Eau Claire in the top of the eighth after a Boushley strikeout, but a Mankato base runner stood on first after another Rubalcaba single. Ashford made a spectacular sliding catch in foul territory to get the second out of the inning, and a fly out by David Metzgar ended another scoreless inning.
The Express would provide Tripp with an additional insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, extending the margin to 5-1. McKenna led off the inning with an infield single, and would round the bases to score on an RBI single to left field off the bat of Guzzo.
Tripp stepped back on the mound for the top of the 9th, looking to send the Express through to the next round of the Northwoods League Divisional Playoffs. The Express closer pitched into a full count against dangerous power threat Hamilton, but on the pay off pitch forced a harmless pop-up to Ashford in left. Clean-up hitter Jordan Kozicky stepped into the batters box next, but would head back to the dug out after watching strike three clip the outside corner. Tripp went up 0-2 to Adams, and painted the corner again on a game-ending strikeout.
Boushley pitched one of the most impressive games in Express postseason history, allowing only four hits and one run in 7.1 innings of work. Boushley earned his ninth win in the most important game of the season, stranding the three base runners he allowed through the seventh. Boushley’s elite control was on display, as it has been all season, with 67 of his pitches crossing the zone as strikes, leading to five strikeouts of a strong Mankato offense.
A push in the fifth inning was enough offensively to carry Eau Claire to a playoff win. McKenna led off the game with an RBI single, and finished the game with two hits and a run scored. Marinconz had an identical stat line to his Cal Poly collegiate teammate, finishing 2-4 with an RBI and a run scored himself. Guzzo was the offensive x-factor in the game, drawing a key walk that led to the fifth inning scoring spree. Guzzo scored what would prove to be the game-deciding run after rounding the bases following the important walk. Guzzo also had a multi-hit game, driving in the final insurance run on a one-run single in the eighth.
The Express will make the trek to St. Cloud for tomorrow’s Divisional Playoff game, playing the Rox for a spot in the 2016 Northwoods League Championship. The Rox were the secod half North Division Champions, and posted the best record in the North Division for the 2016 regular season. Left-hander Brody Rodning will get the start in the single elimination game tomorrow night, making his first start since July 22nd. Rodning did pitch, however, two innings at the Northwoods League Major League Showcase. The Minnesota State Mankato product holds a 3-1 record with a 3.91 ERA and is one of the hardest throwing pitchers on Eau Claire’s staff.
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.