Waterloo’s tying run stood threatening from scoring position. With two outs and a pinch runner on second, a single should have tied up the game. But Zach Gilles wasn’t ready for extra baseball.
The Bucks’ Kyler Arenado took the first pitch he saw from Kuster Kinlecheenie into left field. Gilles came charging in, corralled the ball on a hop and fired home. It took just one bounce before catcher David LaManna tagged Noah Conlon to end the game, putting the stamp on Monday night’s 2-1 victory over Waterloo to move Eau Claire a win away from advancing to the divisional championship.
It was a pitching duel all night for the Great Plains East’s top teams. Express starter Nick Alvarado pitched 6.2 innings, allowing just one run, while collecting four strikeouts.
The Express offense was held quiet most of the night. They mustered just five hits, but a two-run fourth inning proved enough.
Cole Cabrera led things off in the fourth with a double to left, before Gilles hit an infield single, moving Cabrera to third. Gilles took second on a steal, before LaManna singled to center, to put Eau Claire up 2-0.
Waterloo’s lone run came in the bottom of the fourth when Dylan Phillips homered off Alvarado.
Eau Claire had a chance to add to the lead in the eighth, when Connor Laspina hit a lead-off double, flipping the batting order and bringing Cabrera to the plate. Laspina advanced to third on a Cabrera groundout, but Gilles struck out swinging and Matt Bottcher grounded out to keep Laspina stranded.
After coming in to relieve Alvarado with two outs in the seventh, Kinlecheenie allowed just one runner in the eighth before coming back in the ninth. He got a quick out, forcing Bennett Hostetler to pop out behind home plate. That’s when the trouble started for Eau Claire. Patrick Ferguson hit a double to right and was lifted for a pinch runner. Kinlecheenie recorded the second out of the inning via a fly out to center. Then, Gilles saved the day for Eau Claire.
Eau Claire was able to keep Alvarado’s pitch count to just 81 pitches, four pitches below the mandatory four-day rest limit, making him eligible to pitch again on Thursday.
The Express return home today for Game 2 of the subdivisional round at 6:35 p.m. Craig Colen will take the mound for Eau Claire. Colen has registered a 5.62 ERA across 40 innings this season.