Optimism wasn't high in the Eau Claire Express organization after suffering a two-game series sweep to Duluth at the start of the month. The losses pushed the Carson Park crew three games back in the win column of the subdivision-leader Huskies with just over a week to go in the season.
"I pretty much thought, 'Well, that's probably the nail in the coffin there,'" Express part-owner Andy Neborak said.
Then, a day later, the Huskies were slapped with a roster violation by the Northwoods League, swiping five Husky wins from the books and thrusting the Express into first place.
"That seemed to pump some new life into the team, and on the same note, take a little away from them," Neborak said.
The Express wouldn't relinqiush their gifted lead the rest of the way, winning six of their final eight games. So, as the team's play-by-play man Pete Knutson said following the final regular season pitch Sunday, "It's not over yet."
Eau Claire kicks off its first playoff run since 2017 and sixth overall this evening. Coincidentally, they'll face the team they clinched a second-half subdivision title and postseason spot against, the Waterloo Bucks.
"It's always nice being in the playoffs, knowing you're one of eight teams in," Express manager Dale Varsho said. "It's good for the guys, knowing they get an opportunity to get a playoff berth."
The Northwoods changed its playoff structure this season, allowing every team that qualifies to host at least one game. The first and second half champions of each subdivision kick things off with a best-of-three series. From there, the rest of the playoffs are winner-take-all, with the subdivision series winners from each division facing off for the right to play in the Summer Collegiate World Series.
"Every team that qualifies will get to play in front of their home crowd," Neborak said. "I think it's a very good fan-friendly change."
The Express are the higher seed thanks to their superior overall record, but the series will start in Waterloo today since the squads were already there for the regular season finale. Eau Claire will host the second game of the series on Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. and, if neccessary, the third on Wednesday.
First pitch today is set for 6:35 p.m. with Nick Alvarado set to go on the mound for Eau Claire. He boasts a 3-3 record and 3.33 ERA and went eight innings, allowing just one run, in his last matchup against the Bucks. He'll face Waterloo's Jack Parkinson, a Rutgers Scarlet Knight with a 4-5 record and 3.80 ERA.
"He's a veteran," Varsho said of Alvarado. "He's competitive as all get out, so I'm sure he'll do everything he can to at least keep it close."
Craig Colen (2-3, 5.62 ERA) is expected to pitch on Tuesday for Eau Claire.
The Express are coming off a two-game series sweep of the Bucks, though Sunday's contest was meaningless for both sides when it comes to playoff position for the first round. Eau Claire closed the regular season slate with an 11-7 victory as Vincent Martinez led the squad with four RBIs.
With Sunday's win, the Express did earn an advantage over Willmar should Eau Claire and the Stingers advance out of the first round.
Eau Claire went 8-4 in the regular season against Waterloo, a team that wasn't nearly as strong in the second half as it was in the first. The Bucks punched their ticket with a 20-16 record in the first half, but sputtered to a 14-22 mark in the second. Only Thunder Bay posted a worse second-half record in the Great Plains East.
Still, the Bucks did have an advantage in preparation, knowing they were already locked in to the postseason.
"We're definitely going to be competitive," Varsho said. "But with winning the first half like Waterloo did, they can position their pitching a long time ago, knowing who their best is."
Roster-wise, only players who were with the Express prior to Aug. 2 are eligible to participate in the postseason. Two players who would have been eligible, outfielder Brock Burton and pitcher Tim Ewald, left the Express over the past few days.
There was a possibility Troy Beilsmith could return to the team for the playoffs, but Varsho said the Evansville outfielder is comfortable with his current status heading into the school year.
The Express still have some of the field players that helped Eau Claire post the best team batting average in franchise history. Five players who batted over .300 are on the postseason roster: Zach Gilles, Matt Bottcher, Nick Marinconz, David LaManna and Sam Kohnle. The offense also boasts Cole Cabrera, who batted .293 and finished top of the league in on-base percentage and third in walks.
"We'll still have a pretty good 10 position players here, so we feel good," Varsho said.