A lion’s roar erupted out of Nick Alvarado as the Eau Claire Express’ starting pitcher walked off the mound in the top of eighth.
It was a much-deserved yell, coming just moments after his 105th pitch of the game, a 90-mph fastball that was a tick faster than his average fastball velocity of 89.5 mph. The pitch forced an inning-ending double play and ended Alvarado’s night with eight innings pitched and just one unearned run allowed. He picked up the easy win in Eau Claire’s 11-3 victory over the Waterloo Bucks.
“I was pretty ecstatic,” Alvarado said. “It’s been since high school that I’ve started and gone that long. I was losing my command toward the end of the game, so having that double play really helped.”
Alvarado started for just one season at Grain Valley High School in Grain Valley, Missouri. It was in his junior season in which he posted a 3.10 ERA before injury washed away much of his senior year.
Since, he’s been a reliever, typically working the eighth or ninth inning and just throwing as hard as he can.
“I’m just learning how to pitch,” he said. “I was a closer in school so I just went out there and threw as hard as I could for one inning, maybe two, so coming out here and starting has been a huge adjustment.”
He said he’s been developing a changeup, a cutter and a new curveball that he’s just learning to throw for strikes.
If he’s still learning, there was no hint of it Thursday night. He struck out a season-high eight Bucks batters and walked just two.
“He was able to fill up the zone the whole night and get ahead of hitters,” Express catcher David LaManna said. “He was able to get a lot of swings and misses.”
Alvarado rarely looked flustered. He allowed just four Waterloo runners to reach scoring position. The lone unearned run against him came in the fourth inning, when Waterloo’s Bennett Hostetler advanced to third on a throwing error by Brock Burton in right. Two batters later, Troy Jenkins hit into a double play to score Hostetler.
It was Alvarado’s second straight quality start for the Express. He went six innings allowing just one run in his last outing on July 6.
Offensively, Zach Gilles has begun to cement himself into the leadoff spot for the Express.
The Chippewa Falls native did his best Rickey Henderson impression against the Bucks, going 3 for 4 with a walk and a stolen base. He came into Thursday night with an on-base percentage of .500 in four games with the Express.
In the fourth inning, the former McDonell Mack showed off his blazing speed for Eau Claire. With one out and one on, Gilles laid a bunt down the third base line. Waterloo’s third baseman came charging in to grab the bar, but when he looked up, Gilles was safely on first without a throw.
A pitch later, with Brock Burton on third, Gilles took off for second. Waterloo’s catcher Alonzo Rubalcaba came up firing, but threw wild of second, allowing Burton to come home, giving Eau Claire a 5-0 lead.
“He’s a guy that’s so fast, it’s fun to watch,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “He does everything a smaller ballplayer does, knowing that his role is not to hit a home run but instead just put it in play.”
Two innings later, he squeaked a single just through the left side of the infield to load the bases for Eau Claire. After a Nick Lopez pop out, Cole Cabrera took a five-pitch walk to cash in a run. It was Cabrera’s second walk of the game. He came into Thursday tied for fifth in the Northwoods in walks.
“Cole is off the charts,” Varsho said. “His walk-to-strike-out ratio is off the charts and he’s a very smart player. … He’s very much a teammate, not so much an individual.”
In the seventh, Burton hit what should have been a two-run double, but an error by Waterloo’s right fielder allowed him to come around to score on a little-league home run to give Eau Claire an 11-1 lead.
Waterloo rallied for a pair of runs in the ninth inning, collecting three hits off of Jonathan Worley.
Eau Claire played without all-star second baseman Matt Bottcher who is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, according to Varsho. The injury isn’t supposed to keep Bottcher out long, and he could be back in the lineup today when the Express return to action against Waterloo at 7:05 p.m.
Noah Denoyer will be making his first start of the season. He has a 1.50 ERA in eight relief appearances this season.
Express 11, Bucks 3
Waterloo 000 100 002 — 3 8 2
Eau Claire 130 101 41x — 11 13 1
WP: Nick Alvarado (8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 8 K). LP: Drew Zimmerman (5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K). Leading hitters — Waterloo: Dylan Phillips 2-3 (R), Blake Wagenseller 2-4 (RBI). Eau Claire: Zach Gilles 3-4 (2 RBI), David LaManna 3-4 (2 R, RBI), Sam Kohnle 2-4 (2 R), Brock Burton 1-3 (2 R, 2 RBI). Records: Waterloo 3-6, Eau Claire 7-2.