Matt Bottcher had a chance to bring the Eau Claire Express all the way back from a four-run, ninth-inning hole.
The Express led off the ninth inning with two straight hits before Cole Cabrera crushed a high flyball to right field. It looked like it might leave the park, but it died on the warning track, falling for a long single. A pitch later, Bismarck's Drew Hensley tried to pick off Cabrera, but he threw wild of first, allowing two runs to score to pull the Express to within one. Then came Bottcher, who crushed a flyball to right. Again, it looked like it might be a homer, but instead it fell just before the wall.
Bottcher came sprinting out of the box and made a wide turn around second to take third. It was a costly decision for the Express All-Star, as he was cut down easily. Unable to score the tying run, the Express fell 7-6 to Bismark in the penultimate home game of the regular season.
"You can’t blame him, he’s a hustler," Express manager Dale Varsho said.
It was the last of numerous base running errors by the Express, who were caught stealing twice earlier in the game.
"We kind of live and die by our aggressiveness," Eau Claire outfielder Brock Burton said. "I think when you play baseball you have to be aggressive because more often than not you're going to live by it."
The gaffs squandered plenty of Express chances. They tallied 22 hits in the game, two shy of the franchise's single game record, but stranded 18 runners.
"We didn’t have very many timely hits," Varsho said. "We left too many guys on base."
It looked like the game might be a blowout early.
Starter Colt Mink had his second straight rough outing for the Express. After giving up six earned runs in his last start, he survived just two-plus innings, surrendering five runs before being yanked just one batter into the third, when Bismarck's Brian Leonhardt singled to center.
Desperately needing an innings eater, Varsho turned to the old man in his bullpen, 23-year-old Brad Rindfleisch.
Rindfleisch has been Eau Claire's soft contact specialist. He's holding opponents to an average exit velocity of 77.6 mph over his three outings this year, 4.3 mph below the team average. Only Nick Alvarado, who left the team earlier in July, held opponents to a lower average exit velocity, averaging 75.9 mph over 11 appearances.
"I guess I'm just missing barrels," Rindfleisch said. "They're getting enough wood on it to drop a few base hits in there, but that's the way it goes sometimes."
The soft contact allowed Rindfleisch to pitch around seven hits over 4.2 innings, allowing just two runs, before exiting the game with two outs in the seventh.
"Brad is going to be someone we want back next year," Varsho said. "He's someone who knows the game, he keeps runners on tight and is just a really smart player."
Cabrera had a golden opportunity to tie the game up for the Express in the fifth. A two-out walk from Sam Stonskas flipped the lineup over and loaded the bases for Cabrera. But Eau Claire's on-base machine couldn't come through this time, flying out to left to end the inning.
In the seventh, Vincent Martinez crushed a leadoff double to right field, but after moving to third with two outs, Brock Burton couldn't drive in the run.
It wasn't until the ninth that the Express were able to rally.
Bottcher's base-running blunder certainly hurt the team, but hanging onto one final out, the Express had one final shot to come back. Alec Trela walked before Zach Gilles hit a single to right to move the tying run to second, but that was as far as Eau Claire would get.
The Express wrap up their regular season home slate with one final game against the Larks at 7:05 p.m. today. Dominican University's Medin Milla will make his first start of the season for Eau Claire. Milla, a sophomore, pitched to a 6.14 ERA over 36.2 innings during his 2018 college season.
Bismarck 7, Eau Claire 6
Bismarck 410 002 000 — 7 12 2
Eau Claire 200 100 003 — 6 22 3
WP: Drew Mesecher (6 IP, 15 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K). LP: Colt Mink (2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 1 K). Leading hitters — Bismarck: Brody Tanksley 2-5 (R, 2B), Clay Woeste 2-4 (2 R). Zach Gilles 3-5 (2 RBI), Brandon Dieter 3-4 (R), Matt Bottcher 3-6 (RBI). Records: Bismarck 11-22, Eau Claire 18-15.