If you build it, they will come. And right now, the Eau Claire Express are building a serious candidacy for a playoff spot.
The Express won their third game in four tries since a Duluth roster violation sprung Eau Claire into first place with a 10-5 win against Bismarck on Field of Dreams night Wednesday.
The Express scored twice in the seventh inning to break a tie and buried the Larks with six more in the eighth as John Kinsella actor Dwier Brown looked on from the grandstand at Carson Park. David LaManna broke the tie with a sacrifice fly to right field, while the team batted around an inning later to leave no doubt.
With the win, Eau Claire holds a two-game lead in the Great Plains East heading into the final four games. The leading competitor, La Crosse, split with third-placed Duluth in a doubleheader Wednesday.
"We definitely feel good," Express infielder Matt Bottcher said. "It was nice after the whole Duluth debacle. It took a lot of weight off our shoulders. I think we're just a relaxed group of guys just playing."
Despite the eventual lopsided score, it was Bismarck who scored first when Brian Leonhardt drove AJ Gill home on a single to right field in the third inning. An inning later, Gill doubled the lead for the Larks on a single, his first hit with the team, to score Clay Woeste from third.
Express starter Andrew Tri mitigated the damage both times, stranding runners on second and third in the second and the bases loaded in the third, keeping the hole manageable for the offense to dig out of in the bottom of the fourth.
"We needed some innings eaten up and he was willing to come back," Express manager Dale Varsho said of Tri, who recently rejoined the squad. "He did a great job and really competed well."
Alec Trela, a junior at Memphis playing in his third game with the team, opened the fourth's scoring with a screaming line drive down the left field line that rolled all the way to the wall and bounced. The extra hop of the ball helped LaManna easily score from first.
Eau Claire got an opportunity with the bases loaded three batters later, and while it didn’t push Bismarck starter Matthew Boynton to the brink, the team was able to equalize on a walk from Sam Stonskas.
Bottcher jump-started the go-ahead seventh when he hit a leadoff triple into centerfield. His drive made it just outside the reach of Bismarck’s Wyatt Ulrich and to the wall just left of the scoreboard, allowing him to reach third standing.
"It was actually a changeup," Bottcher said. "I just got my pitch and took a swing at it."
LaManna scored him an at-bat later with ease, while Trela kept the train moving with a double. After Zach Gilles bunted Trela over, Brandon Dieter drove him in on a single.
Then came the eighth, which featured 12 Express at-bats.
Cole Cabrera hit his fourth home run of the season, a solo shot onto the football field in left field, and Gilles scored a pair on a ground rule double that arguably should have been caught by right fielder Damon Lux. Dieter drove home LaManna on a hit off the end of the bat that rolled down the line long enough for him to get in from third, while Sam Kohnle and Brock Burton closed out the scoring with RBI singles.
"It's awesome, especially in this playoff push," Trela said of the eighth. "You need something to get you going."
The extra large cushion was needed since Bismarck notched three runs in a minor comeback effort in the ninth.
"It was definitely good for the team," Bottcher said of the offensive outburst. "We haven't been hitting so well. We've been a way better team in the past with the bats. I think we've just got to keep doing us and good things will happen."
Jack Brown earned the win after allowing just one hit and zero runs in two innings of relief. Gilles reached twice on bunts on a 3-for-4 day. Trela also had a trio of hits, while Burton, Bottcher, LaManna, Kohnle and Stonskas each had a pair.
Dwier Brown signed autographs outside the park prior to the game and threw out the first pitch in front of a strong crowd.
Eau Claire has two more games left with the Larks in its final regular season home series of the year. First pitch is set for 6:35 p.m. tonight, with lefty Colt Mink (3-4, 4.77 ERA) set to start on the mound for the Express. He’ll go against Bismarck righty Drew Mesecher (2-3, 5.40).
Eau Claire 10, Bismarck 5
Bismarck 001 100 003 — 5 10 0
Eau Claire 000 200 26x — 10 18 2
WP: Jack Brown (2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K). LP: Max Tannebaum (2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K). Leading hitters — Bismarck: Brian Leonhardt 2-4 (2 RBI), Ty Hanchey 2-4 (RBI). Eau Claire: Zach Gilles 3-4 (R, 2 RBIs), Alec Trela 3-4 (2 R, RBI), David LaManna 2-2 (2 R, RBI), Matt Bottcher 2-5 (2 R), Sam Kohnle 2-5 (RBI, R). Records: Bismarck 10-22, Eau Claire 18-14.