Don’t worry Express fans. This train has one more stop.
Eau Claire eradicated one of the biggest thorns in its side this season, earning a one-hit, 2-0 victory against Willmar Wednesday to secure its first trip to the Summer Collegiate World Series since 2016. They’ll face a Traverse City Pit Spitters team looking to cap off an impressive first year in the league in a winner-take-all matchup Friday.
“It’s absolutely awesome,” McDonell grad Zach Gilles said. “It’s been a great experience, a lot of fun. I just hope we can go out there and bring a championship back to Eau Claire.”
Once again, the pitching staff stepped up when the team needed it. With the roster turnover, the group on paper was the team’s biggest question mark entering the postseason, but the staff has quieted any doubters. Through three games, opponents have only scored one run.
“Right now with all the guys leaving when they have to go back to school, it hurts but at the same time we’ve just got to bear down and do what we do,” Express reliever Jack Brown said.
Starter Andrew Tri, who returned to the team this month after starting the year in Eau Claire, was wildly effective in his three innings of work. He kept Willmar hitless but allowed the Stingers to load the bases in the first and third.
He was able to navigate out of the stretch, leaving eight stranded overall. His first inning escape was particularly impressive, as he struck out Justin King and benefited from a nice catch from Connor Laspina to get out of a one-out, bases-loaded situation.
His dangerous dealings did have consequences when it came to the pitch count, as he was pulled after tossing 70 pitches in favor of the Eau Claire Memorial graduate Brown. The former Old Abe thrived in the long-relief situation, keeping the no-hitter going until the sixth. His only other blemish in four innings was a lone walk.
“Going in, I knew I’d try to get as many innings as possible,” Brown said. “I thought it worked out great.”
A playoff opportunity helped the rising sophomore close out his summer homecoming in style.
“It’s a blessing,” the Minnesota State righty said.
“There’s nothing better than playing at Carson Park under the lights. Growing up here in Eau Claire, playing at Memorial, and then (manager Dale) Varsho giving me the opportunity to play here in the summertime with the hometown crowd on your side, there’s nothing better.”
Brown had a lead to work with after Gilles opened the scoring for Eau Claire in the bottom of the fourth. He advanced from third on a wild pitch that bounced off the dirt and to the right of Willmar catcher Luke Bowman.
“That was pretty exciting to get that run,” Gilles said. “Good momentum builder for the team and helped us ride through for the rest of the game.”
Laspina gave the Express a cushion they wouldn’t need with a bases-loaded double in the sixth that scored Nick Marinconz.
Peyton Sherlin finished the job on the mound for Eau Claire, pitching a perfect final two frames to put an end to a Stingers team that bested Eau Claire in six of eight regular season meetings.
“Just lights out,” Gilles said of the pitching staff. “They pitched super well tonight, rose to the occasion.”
Traverse City beat the Madison Mallards 3-2 in the Great Lakes final Wednesday, powered by a pair of RBIs from infielder Riley Bertram. The Pit Spitters, the top team in the Great Lakes East subdivision in both the first and second halves, led the Northwoods with a 52-20 overall record in the regular season.
Pit Spitters pitcher Andrew Hoffman was named the league’s top pitcher after posting a 1.08 ERA in 12 appearances, while Traverse City’s Josh Rebandt was named Manager of the Year. No team had more than their five postseason All-Star selections.
“We don’t care about their record,” Brown said. “It’s one game, winner-takes-all. We’re going to try to get it done.”
The Express have made three prior appearances in the Summer Collegiate World Series, winning their lone title in 2010.
“The 19 guys I have here really want to play,” Varsho said. “Getting the chance to play for a championship is always fun.”
Varsho said he wasn’t sure Eau Claire will make the entire nine-hour bus ride to northern Michigan today. The team will have plenty of time for bonding, while pitcher Nick Alvarado (3-3, 3.33 ERA) can mentally prepare for his start. He threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball in Eau Claire’s postseason opener against Waterloo on Monday.
Eau Claire 2, Willmar 0
Willmar 000 000 000 — 0 1 1
Eau Claire 000 101 00x — 2 7 2
WP: Jack Brown (4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K). LP: Trevor Divinski (5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K) SV: Peyton Sherlin (2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K).
Leading hitters — Eau Claire: Nick Marinconz 2-4 (R), Sam Kohnle 2-2.