Eau Claire Express outfielder Zach Gilles had a breakout 2019 season at Central Michigan. The Chippewas hired a new head coach and it was freeing for Gilles, who hit hit .351 with 57 runs scored, the fourth most in the Mid-American Conference. He became one of the MAC’s best players and it showed on Thursday afternoon in his 2019 debut with the Express.

The former McDonell Mack showed off his blazing speed with two outs in the fourth inning. He slapped a weak ground ball toward third that would have been a routine out for most runners, but not for Gilles. La Crosse’s Tony Ballard came charging in for the ball and quickly fired to first, but it was a step too late. Gilles reached, prolonging the inning for the Express.

Vincent Martinez followed with a walk, then Nick Lopez hit a RBI single to put Eau Claire on the board.

A batter later, Brandon Dieter snuck a ground ball down the third-base foul line for a RBI double.

Unfortunately for the Express, the rally was a half-inning too late and not nearly enough. The Loggers put up five runs in the top of the fourth and kept adding on late en route to a 11-5 victory to spoil Independence Day for the Express.

Gilles joined the team Wednesday for his third straight season with the Express. He has spent the first part of the summer working as a pharmacy technician to help improve his resume for grad school. Now, he’s working part-time and spending his off hours roaming the outfield for the Express.

In the sixth inning, he showed off his wheels again, laying a bunt down the third base line. Again, Ballard came charging in, but this time he knew that there was nothing he could do. He just watched the ball roll down the third base line, hoping it would roll into foul territory.

“He’s fast, he can run, he can bunt, he can do a lot of things and add to our team,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “He should be fun to watch.”

The bunt hit moved Troy Beilsmith into scoring position and eventually allowed Eau Claire to score a pair and pull within three.

“I just try to put the ball on the ground and run,” Gilles said of his play style. “That’s basically it.”

In the seventh, he showed off his patience, taking a full-count, two-out walk to prolong the inning. It brought Martinez to the plate who hit an infield popup, but nobody on La Crosse took initiative on the play, allowing the ball to fall and loading the bases for Eau Claire. A pitch later, Eau Claire scored on a wild pitch to pull within two.

But that was as close as the Express would get.

Tanner Kohlhepp was effectively wild for the first three innings. He allowed seven of the first 17 batters to reach base but limited the damage to just one run via seven strikeouts.

Things, however, deteriorated in the fourth. He gave up a leadoff single, then a walk, before JT Schwartz hit a line drive double over the head of Brock Burton in right. Two batters later, Tony Bullard crushed a homer to straight away centerfield to put the Loggers up 6-0.

“We need to throw more strikes,” Varsho said. “Tanner is one of our best pitchers, so he just needs to have the mentality of trying to fill up the zone. I think he does, he just couldn’t find it tonight.”

Kohlhepp got two more batters, but after a walk to Trey Harris, Varsho turned to his bullpen.

Noah Denoyer was the first reliever into the game. He wrapped up the fourth inning with a pair of groundouts then came back for two more innings, allowing just on run.

Jonathan Worley followed, but he wasn’t as successful. He gave up a single in the seventh, then coughed up a pair of runs in the eighth when Trey Harris crushed a ball over the left-field wall and onto the neighboring Carson Park football field.

La Crosse’s Lalo Porras went five innings, allowing just two runs on three hits to the Express. He turned the ball over to Mark Sellers who surrendered three runs, one earned.

After the quick one-game homestand, the Express head to Duluth for the first of three road games against the Huskies. Alec Baker takes the mound in his fourth start of the year.

La Crosse 11, Eau Claire 5

La Crossee 001 501 022 — 11 14 1

Eau Claire 000 202 100 — 5 10 1

WP: Lalo Porras (5 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 4 K). LP: Tanner Kohlhepp (3.1 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 7 BB, 8 K).

Leading hitters — La Crosse: Ryan Holgate 2-4 (3 R, RBI), Tony Bullard 4-4 (2 R, 4 RBI, HR, 2B), Trey Harris 4-5 (R, 4 RBI, HR); Eau Claire: Zach Gilles 2-4 (2 R), Vincent Martinez 2-4 (R), Brandon Dietere 2-5 (2 RBI).

Records: Eau Claire 20-18; La Crosse 18-20.