The Northwoods League is set up so that teams that get off to rocky starts can rebound and still make the playoffs. With the season split into two halves — and the winner of the second half getting a postseason spot — every team gets a fresh start around the Fourth of July.
But in Dale Varsho’s experience, the second half reboot had always been nothing more than false hope. In his first 12 seasons as the Eau Claire Express manager, the first half of the season was enough games to determine what kind of team he had. A bad first half had meant a bad season overall.
But not this year. This year was different.
“I’ll remember how we came back,” Varsho said. “We didn’t play well in the first half. I’ve never had a team like this bounce back and get in the playoffs.”
The Express finished the first half of 2017 with a 15-21 record, good for eighth place in the North Division and 10 games back of first-place St. Cloud. The second half was a different story. They flipped a switch in late July and tied a franchise record with nine straight wins. They went on to win 18 of their last 23 games and clinched a postseason spot on the last day of the regular season, winning the North Division second-half title with a 24-12 record.
The closest the Express had ever come to such a turnaround was in 2007, when they finished the first half 17-17 before going 25-9 in the second half to make the postseason. But that first half 10 years ago wasn’t as rough as what the Express experienced this season.
The offense struggled from the start. A lack of position players early hurt. Injuries played a part. But mainly, the Express just struggled to find any consistency at the plate. And they lacked pop.
They finished the first half tied for last in team batting average and last in several other categories, including doubles, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. And although the pitching staff was OK, it wasn’t good enough to make up for the offense’s deficiencies.
There were signs of life though. The Express weren’t nearly as bad as their record indicated. They scored only 15 less runs than they gave up, indicating they should have been closer to the .500 mark.
“I don’t know how many one-run games we lost the first half,” Varsho said. “We were competitive but didn’t have a whole lot of wins.”
Eau Claire’s 3-6 record in one-run games and 1-4 record in two-run games made a big difference. The Express, who had some key players back from 2016’s team that advanced to the league championship series, continued to feel like they had the talent to succeed.
In the second half, they reached their potential.
Some new players helped. Kyle Marinconz returned for a third season in late June and became a fixture in the middle of the lineup. Dallas Baptist studs Matt Duce and Garrett Wolforth added some pop late in the year. Once Luke Bandy got hot too, and with McDonell grad Zach Gilles — who hit .315 and led the league with a .479 on-base percentage — and Zach Ashford setting the stage at the top, the Express lineup suddenly had depth.
Other late additions, including Josh Norlin, Dayton Bryden and Eau Claire North product Adam LaRock, filled in admirably for a team that seemed pieced together at times down the stretch but still continued to put up runs, raising the team batting average to .260 by the end of year. Someone new would come through seemingly every night while the Express suddenly started ripping off win after win.
“We were just in the moment,” Ashford said. “We liked coming out here every day, just playing for each other, having a good time. We stopped taking selfish at-bats. We were just having fun, and it finally just clicked for us.”
Pitching, though, was the big key to the turnaround. Luke Eldred, Lane Ramsey, Drew Gillespie, Aaron Shortridge, Cody Dye and Ryan Zimmerman all spent time dominating in the starting rotation, which posted a 1.24 ERA during the nine-game winning streak. And no one will soon forget the spot start by Eau Claire Memorial’s Dalton Roach, who threw seven shutout innings to clinch a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season.
The Express didn’t have the postseason success like last year, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs with a 12-0 loss to Mankato. But they made the playoffs for consecutive years for just the second time in team history.
“I think the thing that sticks out most about these two years is the guys you meet,” Ashford said. “They become your family, they become your summer family. I still talk to guys I met last year. I’m going to go to Tyler Jones’ wedding next year, so it’s cool just having those connections, meeting people, and having lifetime friends.”