It’s fitting Eau Claire Express infielder Matt Bottcher plays his college ball for the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames since he’s been absolutely red hot to start his Northwoods career.
Bottcher entered Eau Claire’s matchup with Thunder Bay Tuesday night hitting .440, notching a hit in 11 straight games. He’s the pace car of an all-around strong Express offensive unit.
“I think I’m just really relaxed right now,” Bottcher said. “I worked really really hard this season and this offseason, working on hitting and becoming a threat at the plate.”
Bottcher joined the Express ten days into the season after his UIC squad completed an impressive second-half surge. The Flames, who boast Curtis Granderson as an alum, lost seven of their first eight games and were 3-8 when they opened Horizon League play on March 16 against Oakland.
Once conference play kicked off, their fortunes changed. UIC swept the first Oakland series and won 18 of its 29 regular season conference games, earning the second seed in the league tournament. In Fairborn, Ohio, the Flames beat No. 3 UW-Milwaukee twice, including in the title game, and upset No. 1 Wright State to win the Horizon League.
“We always preach that you want to be playing your best baseball at the end of the year,” Bottcher said. “We had a lot of early struggles. It seemed like at the beginning of the year, our first weekend, that we were going to lead the country in strikeouts. I don’t even think we were anywhere close to that by the end of the year.
“It’s just a process. You just got to keep chugging along. I think you can even see that here in this team (the Express). We can down by four of five runs and we’re never out of it.”
The conference title earned the Flames a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Bottcher’s college career, but unlike his freshman season, he was a regular in the lineup this time. Bottcher had one hit in five at-bats as UIC fell to Louisville and Indiana in the Louisville-based regional.
“I think the biggest lesson there for us, we’re a smaller, mid-major school, playing against Louisville,” he said. “I think it really doesn’t matter what your team is or who you’ve got on the mound. It’s just whoever plays the best that day.”
Individually, Bottcher’s numbers went the opposite direction as the year went along. The start of his junior campaign mirroed his start in Eau Claire. He had hits in 10 of his first 13 games, getting his average up to .353 after the Horizon League opener.
He stayed above .340 for one more game, with his average dropping as low as .275 in his regular season finale against the University of Chicago. He said he’s relieved to be back on track, getting closer to his goal of consistency.
“I guess I wasn’t really happy with how the season ended,” Bottcher said. “I’ve been putting in a lot of work with (Express) Coach (Dale) Varscho and it’s really paying off.”
Bottcher has gotten on base when it counts, knocking in 15 runs on 22 hits and three walks with Eau Claire.
“It’s good to have Matt behind me because he’s protecting me in the lineup,” Express outfielder Spencer Myers said. “They’re forced to throw me strikes to try to get me out to avoid him coming to the plate. I’ve been getting a lot of good pitches to hit and when I get on I know there’s a good chance I’m going to keep running the bases.”
Bottcher’s already accounted for a handful of memorable moments, most recently a four-hit performance against the La Crosse Loggers on Monday. Last Monday he hit a walk-off single in the 10th inning to lift the Express to a 5-4 victory against Thunder Bay.
“He’s a patient hitter,” Myers said. “He’s calm in the box. He only swings at his pitches that he likes.”
Eighteen of Boettcher’s 22 knocks have been singles. That’s no surprise, considering he only hit six extra base hits this year at UIC. He’s focusing on developing his power this summer before heading back for his final collegiate season.
“That’s what I’ve been working on with Coach Varsho, just hitting balls way out in front and trying to drive the baseball,” Bottcher said.
The Express were tied with Bismarck for the Northwoods League lead in hits heading into Tuesday night’s games, with each team slapping 204 a piece. Five Eau Claire players with a minimum of 29 at-bats are hitting over .300 — Reid Bass, Phillip Sikes, Myers, Troy Beilsmith and Bottcher.
“I just think our offense really has fun,” Bottcher said. “When you’re having fun, it’s kind of easy to keep playing good baseball.”