Eau Claire, Wis.— The Express dropped the opening game of the 2016 Collegiate Summer World Series to the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters 5-4 on Thursday night. Eau Claire took a lead in the top of the ninth on a Sam Hurt sacrifice fly, but a walk off two-run home run by Rob Calabrese gave the Rafters an unlikely championship series lead. The Express will return to Carson Park tomorrow night at 6:35 p.m. in a must-win game to force a return to Wisconsin Rapids for game three of the Northwoods League Championship.
The Express started out Thursday’s Northwoods League Championship with a base hit, as Zach Ashford ripped a lead off single through the middle. Wisconsin Rapids starter Gareth Stroh rebounded with two strikeouts to bail the Rafters out of the early jam.
It would be the Rafters who scored first in the game, as a Richie Palacios drew a lead off walk from Express starter Jake Sommers. Palacios swiped second base to give the Rafters their first runner in scoring position. Rob Calabrese would capitalize, pulling a single just within the first base line to score Calabrese and giving the South Division Champions an early 1-0 lead in the first.
Stroh would strand another base runner in the second, after recovering from a Rudy Rott single with two strikeouts and a ground out to preserve the narrow lead.
The Express would level the score in the bottom half of the second inning, using two hits to tie the game at 1-1. Cody Bohanek started off the inning with a sharp single, and Ashford laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to put Bohanek in scoring position. Alex McKenna picked up the first RBI for the visiting Express, hitting a sharp single off the glove of the Rafters’ second baseman that proved deep enough to score Bohanek.
The tie would not last for long, as the Rafters took a 2-1 lead with nobody out in the top of the third. Palacios would score for the second time in the game after a lead off single. Palacios wheeled all the way home on a Jake Lumley single, as an overthrow by right fielder Kyle Marincoz allowed Palacios to slide safely into the plate. With the fielding error in the outfield, Lumley made it all the way to third on the play. The scoring would continue as Joe Wainhouse hit an RBI single to double the Rafters’ lead.
Sommers would hand the ball over to Reagan MacDonald with no outs in the third inning, after giving up an early lead to the top overall team in the Northwoods League this season. MacDonald closed out the inning with relative ease, striking out two batters swinging while getting help from Daulton Varsho behind the plate on a pop-up in foul ground.
Stroh got into trouble with two two-out walks in the top of the fourth, but fanned the final batter of the inning to preserve the 3-1 advantage for Wisconsin Rapids. MacDonald had an excellent inning of his own, striking out two batters in the fourth to keep the Express within striking distance.
Following a Varsho single with one out in the fifth, the Rafters made the move to the bullpen for reliever John Jaeger. Jaeger would retire two batters to close out the fifth, proving why he was hailed as one of the top middle relievers in the NWL all season.
MacDonald added two more strikeouts in the fifth, making it six strikeouts in 10 batters faced through 2.2 innings pitched. He repeated the process, pitching a scoreless sixth inning, despite allowing a base runner via a single and a hit-by-pitch.
The Express loaded the bases in the top of the sixth with a chance to force another lead chance in the game. Rott was hit by a pitch to start the inning, with a pair of fielder’s choices and another walk putting ducks on the pond for Marinconz. The Cal Poly freshman hit a single into shallow left, tallying his first RBI of the game to pull the Express within one run of the Rafters. Jaeger struck out Varsho swinging to end the inning, with the scoreboard reading 3-2 in favor of the Rafters.
Blair Lasko took over on the mound for Wisconsin Rapids, looking to preserve his perfect 6-0 overall record in relief this year. McKenna continued a strong night at the plate with a double hooking just fair down the first base line to start the seventh. A wild pitch put McKenna on third, and would score on an RBI single from Rott to knot the game at 3-3 in the seventh. Two fielder’s choices at second base stranded two Express batters to hold the tie heading into the seventh inning stretch.
MacDonald pitched his first 1-2-3 inning in the bottom half of the seventh, completing the inning on a strikeout on a fastball painting the outside corner. Lasko put two runners on the bases with back-to-back one-out walks, but forced a double play grounder to end the eighth still locked in a 3-3 tie.
Ben Fisher represented the go-ahead run following a lead off single to deep right field to start the bottom of the eighth. William Iloncaie came in to pinch run for Fisher, and immediately advance to scoring position on a sacrifice bunt. MacDonald would be pulled after the bunt, as Sean Maher was tasked with preserving the tie score line. Maher got the job done, forcing two harmless pop-ups to prevent Iloncaie from advancing further than second to maintain the tie heading to the final inning of regulation at Witter Field.
Garret Schilling, the top closer in the Northwoods League throughout the 2016 regular season, allowed Mickey McDonald to reach safely on a lead off single to start the ninth. A throwing error on a bunt by Rott allowed McDonald to reach third safely, putting runners on the corners with nobody out. A squeeze bunt put Austin Guzzo on first, loading the bases for Sam Hurt. Hurt popped a fly ball to center field, which was deep enough for McDonald to tag up and give Eau Claire a 4-3 lead in the final inning of play. Schilling fanned Bohanek for the second out of the inning, then quickly ended the inning on a strikeout of Ashford.
With a narrow 4-3 lead behind him, Dylan Smith toed the rubber with a chance to give Eau Claire a 1-0 lead in the Collegiate Summer World Series. Andrew Turner drew a walk to give the Rafters a lead off base runner. Smith got two fly ball outs with Calabrese representing the final out of the game. Calabrese took the first pitch he saw from Smith and ripped a walk off two-run home run over the fence in left, giving the Rafters a 1-0 lead in the 2016 Championship.
McKenna was the leading man offensively for the Express, finishing game one of the NWL Championship 2-5 with an RBI and a run scored. Rott also picked up an RBI on two hits. Hurt had a key RBI in the game, driving in McDonald on a sacrifice fly to center that gave the Express a lead in the ninth. The lead, however, would not be enough to earn the victory.
The Express will look to survive in the Collegiate World Series with a win on their home field tomorrow night as the divisional champions square off at 6:35 p.m. at Carson Park. Eau Claire must rebound to Thursday’s deflating loss with energy and momentum to force a game three back in Wisconsin Rapids on Saturday night.
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.