With a two-run eighth inning to snag a 5-3 lead, the Willmar Stingers delivered the final blow of a back-and-forth match up Thursday night, dropping Eau Claire's record to 1-2 on the season.
Express starter Riley Johnson received a no decision in his Northwoods League debut. The North Dakota State freshman turned in the third-consecutive strong performance for Eau Claire starting pitchers to begin this season, yielding three earned runs over seven solid innings. The lanky right-hander put his ability to pound the zone on display by striking out seven while walking none over 28 batters faced.
Eau Claire’s offense wasted no time getting things started in the first as right fielder Nic Ready drove in new-arrival Zach Gilles from second on a single. Yet the 1-0 lead wouldn’t even survive an inning, with the Willmar bats getting the run back immediately in the bottom of the frame on an RBI single from Caleb Ledbetter.
The game remained tied at one run apiece until the top of the fourth when Tanner Umentum laced a two-run double to right field to get the Express back in front 3-1. The two-bagger was Umentum’s second in as many games, as the pitcher from Denmark, WI continues to fill in nicely as a designated hitter/left fielder for Eau Claire in the absence of outfielders Zach Ashford and Ben Mezzenga. Two returning Express players the team expects to add to the roster early next week.
Mirroring the first inning, Willmar would get a run back in the bottom of the fourth on an RBI double off the bat of their eight-hitter, Eric Del Prado. The Stingers would go on tie things up with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, when Ledbetter struck again with a solo homer to left. Riley Johnson would retire the side by getting the next batter on a pop-up to first, and would hurl two more scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh before relinquishing the bump to Tanner Umentum in the eighth.
Umentum, a right-hander out of Milwaukee Area Technical College, struggled in his first pitching appearance of the young season. Allowing Willmar to score two runs on four hits, as they jumped out to their first lead of night 5-3.
Eau Claire backstop Taylor Field would create a glimmer of hope by finding his way to second base to leadoff the top of the ninth. Advancing on an error after reaching on an infield single to set the table for an Express comeback. However, Willmar reliever Nick Lackney would retire the next three Express hitters in order to seal the victory for the Stingers. Umentum was hung with the loss after giving up the winning run(s) in the eighth.
The Express will look to end this season-opening road trip at .500 in Willmar, as they will finish up their two-game series with the Stingers tomorrow at 7:05 p.m. CT. Eau Claire will send Chase Dreger of Colby Community College to the mound to make his Northwoods League debut Friday night, in hopes of locking up a win before returing Carson Park for Saturday's homer. Dreger, a 6’3 sophomore, started in 14 games for the Colby Trojans this spring, throwing 67 innings while recording 78 strikeouts.
The Eau Claire Express are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The 23-year-old summer collegiate league is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 20 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 170 former Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS), two-time World Series Champion Ben Zobrist (CHC) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (BOS), Jordan Zimmermann (DET), Curtis Granderson (NYM) and Lucas Duda (NYM). 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 or on Google Play and set the Express as your favorite team.