Their late run to reach the postseason was one the Eau Claire Express will remember fondly for years to come.
They’d just like to forget how it ended. Their stint in the playoffs was short-lived and ugly.
Express starter Luke Eldred struggled, a short-handed offense was held to three hits and the Mankato MoonDogs cruised to a 12-0 win in the first round of the Northwoods League playoffs Monday night at Carson Park.
“We had a great second half. Nothing to hang our heads about,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “We had a home playoff game, that’s huge for us. It didn’t go our way this last game, but overall it was a good time. It was a fun group of guys, they should be proud.”
The Express, who beat the MoonDogs 5-1 in a playoff opener last year on their way to the Northwoods League Championship Series, had none of the magic of last season’s squad. And they were a shell of the team that won 18 of its last 23 games this year to reach the playoffs.
With Adam LaRock and Devon Garcia ineligible for the postseason and Josh Norlin leaving the team to get back to school, the Express were forced to put pitcher Ryan Zimmerman into a lineup that had little depth and looked more like the offense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category during a 15-21 first half of the season.
But even the middle of the order struggled against MoonDogs starter Tyler Lesley. Trevor Schwecke had two hits — one didn’t leave the infield — and Garrett Wolforth managed a bloop single, but Lesley didn’t allow any other base knocks in 7 2/3 innings. The closest the Express came to scoring was the bottom of the fourth, when Luke Bandy flew out to the wall in right field.
“I think it was just one of those days,” Express outfielder Zach Ashford said. “We had a lot of barrels, but we just found guys on their team. It’s just baseball. That happens. They played well, they deserved to win.”
Eldred, arguably the most reliable starter during the regular season, wasn’t sharp like he was for most of the second half. He was off from the start, giving up a home run to leadoff hitter Daniel Amaral on the third pitch of the game, and gave up five runs on 11 hits in just four innings of work.
“Early in the game, he left some balls up,” Varsho said. “Amaral, who’s a really good hitter, hits one out for them to get good energy over there. They hit the ball where we weren’t. We hit some hard balls, and they caught everything.”
Eldred, who entered the game with only eight walks in 66 innings, attacked the zone like normal, but the MoonDogs had no trouble squaring up ball after ball. Eldred weathered the endless string of line drives by stranding six runners in the first three innings but didn’t have the same luck in the fourth. Jake Shepski, the MVP of the league last year, hit a towering three-run home run that just stayed fair and went right over the top of the foul pole in right to give Mankato a 5-0 lead.
Kenny Ogg relieved Eldred in the fifth and stopped the bleeding for a while, tossing three scoreless innings before giving up the MoonDogs’ third home run of the night, a three-run shot by Kenton Crews in the top of the eighth. Mankato added four runs in the ninth off Isaiah Davis, three of which scored on bases-loaded walks.
Mankato advanced to play St. Cloud in tonight’s North Division title game.
“Give credit to Mankato,” Varsho said. “They have the best record in our division for a reason. They’re a really good team.”