Express Advance to NWL Championship with Extra Innings Win
Eau Claire, Wis.— The Express will play in the 2016 Northwoods League Championship, following an 8-4 extra innings win over the St. Cloud Rox on Tuesday night. The Rox sparked a comeback to force extras in the bottom of the ninth, but Eau Claire scored five runs in the top of the 11th to earn their spot in the Collegiate Summer World Series. Brody Rodning had a spectacular start, pitching seven shut out innings with just three hits allowed, while Alex McKenna drove in the eventual game-winning run in the 11th. The Express will take on the South Division Champion Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, the best team by overall record in the Northwoods League, Thursday night to kick off the three game NWL Collegiate Summer World Series.
The Express threatened early in the North Division Championship game, loading the bases on Rox starter Robbie Palkert in the top of the first. Daulton Varsho got the first hit of the game on a sinking double to shallow center, and was quickly joined on the bases by Alex McKenna (infield single) and Mickey McDonald (walk). Palkert held the Express off the scoresheet with a foul out to end pitch out of the jam.
The Rox loaded the bases in the bottom of the first, as Eau Claire starter Brody Rodning struggled with his control. Rodning had not started since July 22nd before Tuesday’s playoff game, and led off the game by hitting two batters and issuing a walk to load the bases. A double play turned by Sam Hurt would eliminate the early scoring threat to preserve the 0-0 tie. Palker would strand another runner in scoring position in the second, as a lead off walk drawn by Austin Guzzo did not produce a run.
Rodning got back on track with the momentum from the double play, striking out two batters in the bottom half of the second. Palkert responded with a quick 1-2-3 inning in the top of the third.
The Express finally broke the shut out in the top of the fifth, as Hurt reached on a fielding error by St. Cloud shortstop Brett Pope in the lead off spot. Cody Bohanek laid down a text book sacrifice bunt to advance Hurt into scoring position, and a Zach Ashford ground out put Hurt just 90 feet away from taking a lead in the single elimination playoff match-up. It would be Kyle Marinconz who was the early hero in the game, ripping a sharp RBI single up the middle to drive in Hurt. An Alex McKenna ground out ended the inning, but Rodning carried a new 1-0 lead into his fifth inning of work at Joe Faber Field.
St. Cloud would get two hits in the inning, but both base runners reached with two outs. Rodning forced an inning ending ground out to survive through his fifth shut out inning.
After issuing a lead off walk to McDonald, Northwoods League Manager of the Year Augie Rodriguez made the move to the bullpen for Collin Strall, one of the top relievers in the league throughout the 2016 season. The Express would double their lead on Strall as a slow chopper by Bohanek forced an overthrow by the All-Star pitcher that allowed McDonald to score. A great sliding catch by Ricky Ramirez ended the inning, but not before Eau Claire took a 2-0 lead against the second half champions.
The Express would tag Strall again in the top of the seventh, with a lead off double by Marinconz to continue his excellent postseason offensive performance. Marinconz would score on a Varsho single, after right fielder Marcus Carson misplayed the ball to allow the speedy Marinconz to cross the plate with ease.
Strall would not complete the seventh, as Rodriguez gestured to the bullpen for Brian Glowicki, the other top reliever for the Rox throughout the 2016 season. Glowicki would close out the inning with a fielder’s choice for out number two and a strikeout, limiting the score to 3-0 in favor of Eau Claire.
In his final inning of work, Rodning struck out two batters following a lead off single and inducing a groundout to complete his seventh shut out inning against the Rox. Rodning finished the game with eight strikeouts, while allowing just three hits. Glowicki struck out the side in the top of the eighth, as Kenny Ogg took over pitching duties for Eau Claire.
Ogg was excellent in the eighth, striking out two Rox hitters swinging, and easily completing a 1-2-3 inning on a first pitch ground out, preserving the 3-0 lead despite Rodning’s absence on the mound.
The Rox would finally catch fire in the bottom of the ninth, clinging on to tie the game at 3-3 to force extra innings in the playoff match-up. Michael Strem and pinch hitter Webb Bobo hit back-to-back lead off singles, and each runner scored on a Carson triple off of Ogg. Luke Ringhofer would be the hero for the Rox, ripping a one-out RBI single through the infield to send the game to the 10th. Dylan Smith entered the game for Eau Claire and got the final two outs of the inning.
Glowicki completed his strong relief appearance with a no-hit top of the 10th, sending down the bottom of the Express line up with relative ease. Guzzo hit a deep fly ball, but the long distance to the fence in center field at Joe Faber Field eliminated any home run potential. Smith got two strikeouts in a perfect 10th inning of his own.
A single to right field by Ashford and two walks (Varsho and Marinconz) loaded the bases against Glowicki in the top half of the 11th . McKenna stepped in and capitalized with a two-run double to right field, giving the Express a 5-3 lead in extras, with a trip to the Northwoods League Championship on the line. Eau Claire would add to its lead in the inning with a successful RBI squeeze bunt single by McDonald and a two-run single from Rudy Rott, who joined the hit parade in the five-run 11th inning.
Smith came back out for the bottom half of the inning, playing with a 8-3 lead, needing just three outs to send the Express to their first NWL championship since they won the crown in 2010. The inning started off poorly for Smith, as Angelo Altavilla pulled a solo home run to right, cutting the lead to 8-4. Smith, however, rebounded quickly, retiring the next three batters in order to clinch a berth in the Summer Collegiate World Series for Eau Claire.
McKenna would be the game-winner, getting a vital two-run double in the 11th on his second hit of the game. Marinconz nearly hit for the cycle in the game, finishing 3-5 with two runs scored and a run, just one home run short of the cycle. Rodning, tonight’s starting pitcher, carried the Express through regulation, throwing a seven inning shut out with just three hits allowed, despite getting the no-decision.
The celebration followed the extra innings win, as the Express prepare to take on the South Division Champion Wisconsin Rapids Rafters Thursday night in Wisconsin Rapids. Jake Sommers is the probable starter for the Express, looking to tame the bats of the team with the best overall record in the NWL during the 2016 regular season. Sommers has been one of the best relievers for Eau Claire this year, appearing in 11 games while posting a 2.43 ERA and a 3-3 overall record. Sommers has pitched 33.1 innings with 22 strikeouts as a primary long relief pitcher under Dale Varsho’s squad. The Express split the season series with Wisconsin Rapids this year, each team winning two out of four in the two different double headers earlier this season.
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.