The Eau Claire Express’ first playoff win of 2019 came down to the final pitch of the game.
Their second, however, was wrapped up shortly after the first toss from the mound.
The Express blew the game open right out of the gates, scoring six runs in the first inning to pull away for a blowout 7-0 win over Waterloo on Tuesday at Carson Park. The victory finished off a two-game sweep of the Bucks in the best-of-three series to advance to the Great Plains Division championship game.
“It means a lot,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “The guys that are here really want to be here, really want to compete. And I don’t think they have any desire to go back to school yet, so it’s kind of fun right now.”
Eau Claire sent 12 batters to the plate in the first inning to give starting pitcher Craig Colen a massive cushion to work with, and the right-hander did his part to see the Express into the next round. Colen held the Bucks to two hits over 6.2 scoreless innings of work, earning him a standing ovation as he departed the mound in the seventh. He took a no-hitter into the fifth inning.
“This is definitely a great way to end a long, productive summer,” Colen said. “I think everything was working. I was pretty impressed with myself. I was able to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes. I was able to get swings and misses too, not just weak contact.”
Eau Claire will host Willmar today at 6:35 p.m. in a winner-take-all matchup with a berth to the Summer Collegiate World Series on the line.
Tuesday’s blowout victory came a day after Express outfielder Zach Gilles threw out the tying run at the plate to end Game 1 of the series in Waterloo as a 2-1 win for Eau Claire.
“Definitely easier tonight,” Varsho said. “But either game, we’re playing in the postseason so we’re having fun right now.”
The top of the Express lineup loaded the bases without making an out in the bottom of the first on Tuesday, and cleanup hitter David LaManna did what cleanup hitters do best. The designated hitter lined a base hit to center field to give Eau Claire an early 2-0 lead to work with.
“Seeing (the ball) big right now,” LaManna said. “Feeling pretty good, and it’s coming at a good time right now for the Express.”
Brandon Dieter was robbed of extra bases by a diving catch from Waterloo centerfielder Mike Nyisztor following LaManna’s at-bat in the first, but it was still good for a sacrifice fly to put the Express up 3-0. LaManna later scored on a wild pitch to pad the lead to four, and Cole Cabrera’s RBI single through the left side of the infield made it 5-0. Gilles added a bases-loaded walk for good measure.
When the dust had settled, the Express had all but punched their ticket to the division championship game.
“It was kind of the icing on the cake right now,” Varsho said. “Very complete game, very good defense. Now we get to play (Wednesday).”
Eau Claire’s lead never threatened to vanish. They added a seventh run in the second inning on a Bucks error, but there was no more scoring the rest of the way.
Waterloo only threatened to score in the seventh inning, loading the bases with one out. But Colen got Alonzo Rubalcaba to line out for his final out of the night before Eau Claire native Paul Petit came on in relief with a strikeout to escape the jam.
Petit went 2.1 innings and struck out four batters.
Eau Claire is 2-6 against Willmar this summer. To get the chance to play for the Northwoods League championship, the Express will need to turn those fortunes around today.
“Right now, this is kind of where you learn what we’re made of a little bit. See if we can play with the best teams in this league,” LaManna said.