The Eau Claire Express are particularly excited this summer that the Northwoods League splits its season into two halves. The squad, which has struggled out of the gate, gets a clean slate starting on Tuesday.
Eau Claire fell 9-2 to the Willmar Stingers on Monday, wrapping up its first half with a 12-20 record. That puts them in third in the Great Plains East Division, far from punching a ticket to the postseason. Waterloo rolled to a division crown as the only team with a winning record, finishing ten games ahead of the Express.
But all those records go back down to 0-0 for the second half, giving Eau Claire a second shot at a postseason spot. The Northwoods League awards positions to the division winners of each half.
And there’s good news for the Express. After dealing with extended absences to start the season as players enjoyed collegiate postseasons, the team has all but one of its expected players in town.
“I had two meetings today, one with the pitchers and one with the hitters,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “It’s like we’re starting over because none of those guys started with us at the beginning of the season except a very few, especially position players. We’ve only had one position player who started the season with us. We kind of had to go over the speeches and the rules just today so they have an idea of what’s going on.”
With a nearly entirely new team, is it worth putting much stock in the first half performance?
“I don’t, but it’s all about trying to get those guys developed too,” Varsho said. “So I’m not disregarding the first half, but we had to play to just make sure everyone stayed healthy and get guys here. Finally I’ve got some guys on the bench that I can at least substitute. We didn’t substitute until yesterday. Now we finally at least have guys.”
Neither side of the ball has been stellar through the first 32 games — the Express team ERA of 4.66 ranks middle of the pack — but the hitting particularly has been an issue. With a team batting average of .209, the Express only rank higher than the Minnesota Mud Puppies.
The team hopes the reinforcements will help in that regard.
“It’s going to get there,” Varsho said. “Now with the Stanford guys here we’re going to get to hit better. ... We’re going to be OK offensively.”
Alejandro Macario is the lone position player still around who started the season with the team. His ability to remember names has been tested mightily, as has his hitting after a hot start. He’s sensed the energy the new players have brought up close.
“It’s a whole new bunch of players that just kind of spark up the lineup,” Macario said. “It’s fun, it’s fun seeing those guys from all over the place.”
Monday’s half-closing contest was emblematic of the season thus far. Starter Eddy Pelc lasted just one inning, allowing no hits but walking three and hitting a batter. Willmar scored its first run on a free pass, then added on with a sacrifice fly and took advantage of a wild pitch to take an early 3-0 advantage.
The Stingers added two more in the second on a double and a sacrifice fly to push the lead to 5-0 before Eau Claire finally answered. Nick Marinconz got the first Express hit on a single in the fourth inning and advanced to second on an error, helping Carter Graham drive him home in his Northwoods debut with a liner to the left side of the infield.
Willmar added insurance runs in the fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth, scoring on a double play ball, a Grant Kerry double down the left field line, a Brady Hill single to right and a Steve Ramirez solo homer to right.
Eau Claire added a second run in the bottom of the ninth on a Omar Gastelum sacrifice fly, getting Macario home from third.
“Tonight was another bad experience of just not being able to compete on the mound right away,” Varsho said. “We’re not a very good team of fighting back right now. We’ve got to have that initial starting pitcher that shoves a little bit. That’s kind of what it comes down to.”
The second half begins with a home-and-home against the Duluth Huskies, starting in Carson Park Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. The teams will head to Duluth Wednesday before Eau Claire begins a four-game homestand a day later.
“It’s a whole new start, a whole new slate,” Macario said. “I kind of just want to forget about the first half.”
Willmar 9, Eau Claire 2
Willmar 230 011 101 — 9 8 2
EC 000 100 001 — 2 5 3
WP: Tanner Brown (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 5 K, 3 BB). LP: Eddy Pelc (1 IP, 0 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 K, 3 BB). Leading hitters: Eau Claire: Carter Graham 2-4 (2B, RBI), Omar Gastelum (RBI).