Eau Claire Pizza Hut/Post 53 successfully defended home turf on Sunday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to take home a title.
The Legion squad broke a tie with three unanswered runs in the second inning to secure a 4-1 victory against Winona in the final game at the Carson Park-based River City Classic Sunday.
“It’s a great feeling,” Pizza Hut center fielder Gabe O’Brien said. “In front of all the fans here today, it’s awesome.”
It’s a nice consolation, but defending its spot atop the tournament would have felt sweeter.
The Pizzas needed a one-sided win to claim the championship after a 6-0 loss to Marshfield Post 54 late Saturday night put them a game back. The Winona LeJetz were the last remaining undefeated team heading into the final game of the three-day tournament, meaning Eau Claire could force a three-way tie between itself, Marshfield and Winona at 3-1 with a victory. Winona took the crown due to allowing the fewest runs.
“Last night was rough,” Eau Claire’s Ethan Kjellberg said. “We didn’t have anything going. Today was a good thing. We had balls drop, which is what we need.”
Kjellberg had three RBIs for the Pizzas, kicking off the game’s scoring in the bottom of the first with an RBI double. While O’Brien drove in the game-winning run, Kjellberg added a cushion with a two-run single.
“Today I went to the field before the game, worked on some swings,” Kjellberg said. “This weekend has just been a little off. I adjusted my stance a little bit and it worked.”
Altoona Legion went 1-3 at the tournament, defeating Green Bay Shockers 8-7 Saturday night. Green Bay finished 0-4.
Connor Stoik got on base in the second at-bat of the day when he was hit by a pitch by Winona starter Grant Buxengard. A batter later, Kjellberg hammered a pitch into the left-center gap to get him home from first base.
Winona answered in the top of the second when Cal Brinkman stole home after the Pizzas attempted to throw out Matt Rinehart at first following a drop-third strike.
Buxengard struggled with his location in the second, his final inning of work, but still managed to navigate through the early part of the frame with minimal damage. But O’Brien came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second and was able to smack a hit into left field to score Jaxon Vance.
Stoik walked in the next at bat, setting up Kjellberg with the bases loaded. He hit a deep single that sprinting center fielder Ethan Ringo couldn’t corral to drive in O’Brien and Mitch Voller.
It took a failed double steal attempt by the Pizzas to get Winona out of the inning.
“We were getting ahead in the counts and his fastball was straight,” Kjellberg said. “So we just knew that he could throw a strike with it and we just waited for it.”
Eau Claire pitcher Carter Hesselman took care of business the rest of the way, facing the minimum in the fourth, fifth and seventh and only allowing four to come to the plate in the third and sixth. He held Winona to three hits while striking out nine in a complete game outing.
“He changed speeds,” Pizza Hut coach Mark Faanes said. “His curve ball was awesome. He just pitched a great game.”
Hesselman held the LeJetz out of scoring position for the final five innings of the game.
“Winona’s a good team,” Faanes said. “They’re good friends of ours. We’ve been playing them a long time against each other. ... So it was a good win for us today. I wish we would have hit better, but Carter Hesselman was awesome.”
Voller got on base twice, hitting a single in the fourth in addition to his second-inning walk.
Three players each from Eau Claire and Altoona made the all-tournament team: Altoona’s Jake Nelson, Jake Varsho and Riley Parks and Eau Claire’s Hesselman, Cooper Kapanke and Austin Goetsch.
The Pizzas return to action Tuesday when they travel to Carson Park to take on Chippewa Falls at 5 p.m. The regional tournament is just around the corner, slated to begin on July 26.
“Everyone’s really putting together a lot of really good performances,” O’Brien said. “It’s great having momentum going into the playoffs.”
Eau Claire 4, Winona 1
Winona 100 000 0 — 1 3 0
Eau Claire 130 000 0 — 4 5 3
WP: Carter Hesselman (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K). LP: Grant Buxengard (2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 3 K). Leading hitters — Eau Claire: Ethan Kjellberg 2-3 (2B, 3 RBI), Gabe O’Brien 1-2 (RBI, BB).