The Eau Claire Express’ second-half surge was made possible by numerous players added late that made a big impact. With a trip to the playoffs on the line in the final game of the regular season, manager Dale Varsho had one more ace up his sleeve.
It was Eau Claire Memorial product Dalton Roach, the reigning NCAA Division II pitcher of the year.
Roach, making his first and only appearance for the Express this year, tossed seven shutout innings to lead Eau Claire to a 7-0 victory over the St. Cloud Rox in Northwoods League action Sunday at Carson Park that gave the Express the North Division second-half title.
Roach, who had only been back in Eau Claire for a couple days after a stint in the Cape Cod League, gave up four hits and walked one while striking out nine in a dominant, clutch performance for the Express, who will play Mankato in the playoff opener at 6:35 p.m. tonight at Carson Park.
“Dalton has done that for years for me,” Varsho said. “He’s always been a guy who’s thrown a lot of strikes and gets a lot of strikeouts and competes. I didn’t expect anything different than this. He’s been in bigger games than this already with Mankato. He loves this moment.”
Roach has been pitching well all year. During his junior season at Minnesota State-Mankato this spring, he went 10-1 with a 1.56 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings. In the prestigious Cape Cod League, he posted a 3.77 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings for the Waterham Gateman.
Despite not pitching in Eau Claire all summer, he’s hardly a stranger to the Express. Roach had spent parts of the past three seasons with the Express and fared well. His standout performance was opening day last summer at Carson Park when he set an Express single-game franchise record with 18 strikeout in eight shutout innings against Rochester at Carson Park.
Sunday’s outing was nearly as good. Maybe better, considering the circumstances.
He started fast, striking out the side in the top of the first. An error and a single put two runners on in the second, but a double play ended the inning. No more than one runner reached base in any other inning against the right-hander who pounded the zone with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball and mixed in sharp breaking pitches to roll through the lineup and propel the Express to the playoffs for the second straight season.
“Garrett (Wolforth) did a great job behind the plate calling pitches,” Roach said. “What he threw down, I threw. I’m honored to be apart of this team here at the end. How they brought me in and let me be a part of this right away, that was awesome.”
The playoff scenario was simple by the time Roach took the mound. Thanks to Mankato’s 5-4 win over Rochester earlier in the day, the Express needed a victory to win the North Division. Their season would have been over with a loss. Despite the circumstances, there was little drama late because the Express scored twice in the first, second and fourth innings to take control of the game early.
Wolforth had three hits and three RBIs to lead the offense for the Express, who had 14 hits a night after getting shut out.
“We just started ahead and stayed ahead,” Wolforth said. “Once you get the first couple runs on the board, it’s easier the rest of the game. And Dalton did a great job tonight, and that makes it easier when you see zeroes going up on the board for the other team.”
In the first inning, singles by Zach Ashford and Josh Norlin and a walk to Kyle Marinconz loaded the bases with no outs. Wolforth drove in a run with a groundout before Luke Bandy bounced an RBI hit through the left side.
Two more runs scored in the second without any balls hit particularly hard. Trevor Schwecke reached on an infield hit, Ashford singled into center and both came around to score on Norlin’s slow roller that found its way into right field.
The offense showed a little more pop in the fourth. Eau Claire North product Adam LaRock led off the inning with a long home run over the fan deck in right field. Later in the inning, Wolforth’s bullet to the wall in right center resulted in an RBI double.
Wolforth tallied his third RBI of the day on a single in the seventh to cap the scoring.
“Our hitters did great,” Varsho said. “We put the ball in play, didn’t strike out a lot. We got some seeing-eye ground balls, and Wolforth hit the ball really hard.”
The Express finished the second half of the season 24-12 to finish tied for first with Mankato, but Eau Claire held the head-to-head tiebreaker to win the division. They won 18 of their final 23 games to make the playoffs with a 38-33 overall record that wouldn’t have been good enough for a wild-card spot had they failed to win the division.
“We’ve never in my career stunk up the first half so bad as far as wins and losses and come back and do what we’ve been doing,” Varsho said. “Tribute to the guys we brought in, tribute to the guys that bought into hustle and make every play. I don’t know what to say, it’s tough to imagine. Right now, we’re just excited to be in the playoffs.”
Notes: Express outfielder Zach Gilles, a Chippewa Falls McDonell grad, was named a Northwoods League Postseason All-Star on Sunday. He was the only Express player on the 33-player team. … Luke Eldred will get the start in tonight’s game against Mankato, which finished with the best overall record in the North league at 44-28 but didn’t win either half. … Roach, LaRock and Devon Garcia are among those that won’t be eligible for the playoffs because they didn’t playoff enough regular season games. ... If the Express win today, they will be on the road Tuesday against the winner of tonight’s game between St. Cloud and Willmar.