It’s a Friday afternoon and Eau Claire Express manager Dale Varsho is sitting outside Carson Park on the phone.
He’s been here for a while, just sitting in the shade, contacting college baseball coaches, looking for the one thing every baseball team needs — more pitching.
It’s that time of the year in the Northwoods League when the annual exodus of players begins. Whether it’s due to innings limits or last-minute errands to run before college starts again, every year just before the playoffs begin Northwoods teams see their roster sizes dwindle as players return home for August.
It leaves Varsho on the phone, spending hours making dozens of calls, 50 or 60, he said, looking for available players.
“I’ve got a lot of nos,” he said. “‘No, I’m good where I’m at’ or, ‘No, I’m good with my workout regiment.’ … It’s one of those things, everyone has their own style on how they think they can improve themselves heading into the fall.”
It’s frustrating, but predictable. With almost 15 years of experience under his belt, Varsho is no stranger to the problem and he tries to work around it by recruiting from colleges and universities with late starts, like Cal Poly and Stanford.
“Every year it seems like I recruit differently and I try to battle the same things,” Varsho said.
Even with six players from his two Californian programs, the Express have lost 27 players this summer, including four of their five All-Stars.
So Varsho is left calling up all his baseball friends and asking his players to do the same, hoping to bring in players to help the team for the last few weeks.
His sales pitch is a simple one. Every year approximately 100 Northwoods League players get signed to affiliated baseball and it’s that reputation that draws in baseball players from across the country.
For recent arrival Brad Rindfleisch, joining the Express was a big step up from the Wisconsin Amateur Baseball Association games he was playing in earlier in the summer.
“He really didn’t have to pitch it too much because I know this is a great opportunity,” Rindfleisch, a UW-Stout senior pitcher, said. “It’s going to help me improve personally. I felt like I had to seize the opportunity.”
Fellow pitcher Paul Petit, a Regis graduate, was playing in the Chippewa River Baseball League for the Eau Claire Cavaliers when he got the call from Varsho.
“The Express is just a whole new level,” Petit said. “It’s right up there with the Cape Cod League for the nation. So, being able to don the No. 5 here in the Express uniform is really cool, something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Anyone who joins the club now will be ineligible for the playoffs because the Aug. 2 playoff eligibility deadline has past.
Still, Varsho would like to bring in a few more players to help with the playoff push to keep his guys rested when the postseason finally starts.
As for that playoff roster, the Express have 12 pitchers – 13 if you include infielder Brandon Dieter, who has suddenly been thrust into pitching duties lately – and 12 hitters, with Alec Trela being ineligible for playoff action. They might, however, get all-star third baseman Troy Beilsmith back for the playoffs. Beilsmith left the team following the All-Star break, but has remained on the active roster because of a potential return.
With question marks scattered across the pitching staff and bullpen, the Express’ playoff hopes rest largely on the shoulders of the offense, which has stayed mostly intact, led by Matt Bottcher, Cole Cabrera, and second-half addition Zach Gilles.