Eau Claire, Wis.— The Express fell to the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters 11-4 on Friday night, finishing the season as runner-ups in the Summer Collegiate World Series. The Rafters victory clinched the World Series sweep, ending the 2016 Northwoods League season. Congratulations to all the Express players and coaches for an excellent season, completing the 2016 campaign with a North Division title and dozens of individual accolades.
Express starter Ryan Zimmerman started out the game perfectly, sending Richie Palacios back to the dugout on a swinging strikeout to open game two of the Summer Collegiate World Series. Last night’s hero Rob Calabrese got the first hit of the game, a two-out single that proved harmless as Zimmerman got his second strikeout of the game to end the first inning.
The Express would get a runner all the way to third in the bottom half of the first, as Kyle Marinconz hit a looping double over the head of Andrew Turner at third base. Rafters starting pitcher Jake Repavich induced two groundouts to pitch out of the early jam.
Zimmerman capped off a 1-2-3 second inning with a strikeout to complete his second shut out inning in the must-win game at Carson Park. Repavich would give up a two-out single to Austin Guzzo, but a fly ball ended the inning with the score locked at 0-0.
The Rafters would load the bases in the top of the third with nobody out, following a hit-by-pitch and two ground ball singles that provided the South Division. Daulton Varsho flashed his arm from behind the plate, picking off Max Widmar at third for the first out of the inning. Zimmerman, however, would reload the bases with a four-pitch walk to Jake Lumley to put the dangerous Calabrese in the batter’s box with just one out. Calabrese picked up the first RBI of the game, hitting a sacrifice fly just deep enough to Alex McKenna in center field to score Turner tagging from third. Zimmerman forced a towering fly ball to Marinconz in right to end the inning, with Wisconsin Rapids jumping out to an early 1-0 lead.
The Express would spark a two-out rally to tie the game up a 1-1 in the bottom half of the inning, as Marinconz got his second hit of the game (a groundball single up the middle) to keep the inning alive. Varsho produced in the key moment, hitting a hooking fly ball to the foul line in left that landed for an RBI double. A ground out would limit the damage to one run in the inning, as Repavich stranded another runner in scoring position.
Zimmerman would pitch around a lead off single, forcing three straight fly outs to complete his third scoreless inning. Repavich also stranded an Express runner in the fourth, continuing the stalemate into the fifth.
Walks would continue to haunt Zimmerman in the top of the fifth. With one out, Palacio and Lumley each drew full count walks to put the Rafters in a threatening position again. Calabrese would capitalize, lacing a one-run double to left-center to score Palacio and give the Rafters their second lead of the game. Joe Wainhouse would double the Rafters’ lead to 3-1 on Wisconsin Rapids’ second sacrifice fly of the game. Zimmerman would end the inning on a swinging strikeout, but not before the damage was done, with the Rafters taking a lead in the deciding game of the Northwoods League Championship.
The Express would pull one run back in the bottom half of the fifth to slice the deficit to 3-2 heading into the sixth inning of play. Zach Ashford hit an infield single with one out, advance to second on a Marinconz grounder, and stood at third following a Repavich balk. Varsho hit a chopper to second base, which promptly resulted in a throwing error that allowed Ashford to easily cruise home.
Ryan Hamilton took over on the mound for Zimmerman in the top of the sixth, looking to hold Eau Claire within a run of the South Division Champion Rafters squad. Hamilton quickly found himself in trouble after issuing a lead off walk then hitting Brandon Polizzi with a pitch in the following at bat. A sacrifice bunt by Max Widmar put two runners in scoring position for the Rafters, looking to blow open the gap at Carson Park. Turner chopped a ground ball single up the middle of the infield to clear the bases and give Wisconsin Rapids a 5-2 advantage. Palacio continued the hit parade in the inning, reaching on a sharp single to shallow right field.
Manager Dale Varsho made the move to the bullpen, as Sean Maher came in to complete the inning. The Rafters stayed hot, even against a new pitcher, when Lumley ripped an RBI double to the corner in right field. Calabrese piled onto the lead himself with a one-run double of his own, ballooning the Rafters’ lead to 7-2 in the sixth. Designated hitter Wainhouse cleared the bases with a two-run single off of Maher, and would advance to third on a wild pitch. Two fly outs to left would end the inning, but the Rafters scored six runs in the inning to take a 9-2 lead in the Championship game.
The Express pulled one run back in the bottom of the sixth, when Mickey McDonald crossed the plate on Repavich’s second balk of the game. McDonald led off the inning with a single, looking to spark some positive momentum for Eau Claire. Hurt joined McDonald on the bases on a fielding error by Palacios. Both runners advanced into score position on a wild pitch. Repavich would face his final batter in Bohanek, issuing a walk to Eau Claire’s number nine hitter. Jay Peters came into the game with two outs on the board, retiring Ashford to end the inning with a 9-3 lead on the scoreboard.
Wisconsin Rapids would get the run back in the top of the seventh, as Lumley drove in his second run of the game on a line drive single off of reliever Jameson Lavery. Lavery limited the damage to one run, as the Rafters reclaimed their seven-run lead (10-3) heading into the seventh inning stretch. The Rafters would stretch their lead to 11-3 in the eighth, as Wainhouse blasted a solo home run into the trees in right-center, giving him three RBI’s on the night.
Eau Claire would score in the bottom of the eighth, with a Hurt infield single sparking a two-out rally for the trailing Express. Hurt scampered to second on a wild pitch, and crossed the plate on a Bohanek double off the fence in left field. A groundout killed the momentum, as Peters sent the game to the ninth with the Express down 11-4.
Lavery forced a double play grounder and a fly out to hold the Express within seven runs headed to the final frame of game two of the Summer Collegiate World Series.
Peters struck out two Express batters in the final inning to seal the Summer Collegiate World Series title, sweeping the series 2-0 with the 11-4 final score of tonight’s game at Carson Park.
The Express finished a memorable 2016 campaign on Friday night, with numerous records shattered and a North Division Title acquired. Dale and Daulton led the accolades, with Dale tallying his 400th win on the fourth of July and reclaiming his title as winningest coach in Northwoods League History. Daulton set records in single and career home runs, career triples, single season RBI’s, single season walks, and slugging percentage, with many additional top five finishes in the Express record books. The thrilling conclusion to the first half of the season, the underdog playoff victories, and the overall dominance of the 2016 Express squad will be remembered for endless positive memories made.
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.