Nick Malmberg was ready to put his first Northwoods League start behind him. And after his performance for the Eau Claire Express Wednesday, that should be easy to do.
Six days after a regrettable outing against Willmar that ballooned his ERA to 18.00, the Aurora lefty pitched masterfully against the Minnesota Mud Pupples, posting six scoreless innings in his team’s 1-0 victory.
Malmberg allowed just two hits with no walks while making sure no Mud Puppy advanced past first base. He struck out three to leave with the opposite emotions he dealt with in his debut.
“I definitely mixed the ball up a little bit as opposed to last week,” Malmberg said. “The only thing I was really focusing on in Willmar was getting out there for strikes, getting all three of my pitches going. Today I just said, ‘Let’s try expanding the zone a little bit, see what we can do. Go up, go down, go in and out. Try to go offspeed.’”
Eau Claire scored the game’s lone run in the third inning, making the most of a one-out walk from Altoona native Jake Nelson. Henry George drove Nelson over to third on a single through the left side, then the former Rail ran home on a wild pitch from Minnesota’s Ryan Sleeper that bounced before reaching the batter’s box.
Nelson, who plays collegiately at Madison College, also had a hit on the night.
“It means a lot to play on a field that I’ve played on pretty much half my life and in front of a lot of people I know,” Nelson said. “It’s been fun so far.”
The Express had an opportunity to add on after a pair of ensuing walks to load the bases with two outs, but Zach Lechnir grounded into a putout. They had another missed chance with the bases loaded in the seventh, but it didn’t matter. The pitching made sure one run was good enough.
“My mindset is just to literally keep us in the game,” Malmberg said. “Don’t focus so much about what our hitters can do. I know we’ll get the runs eventually. I know we’ll get the hits eventually. Just focus on yourself. Make sure you put up that zero.”
Malmberg was helped by the work of the Eau Claire bullpen, which flirted with letting him down immediately after his night ended. Kaleb Carpenter walked the first two batters he faced but forced a double play and a putout to escape in the seventh. Fall Creek native Isaiah Katz pitched a quick 1-2-3 inning in the eighth and Nick Herold earned the save.
“The pitching was solid,” manager Dale Varsho said. “Nick to start and Nick to end, and the guys in between just did the job.”
Eau Claire has had a flair for the dramatic when it comes to wins this season. Both prior triumphs came by walk-off fashion. Though shortstop Ryan Lin-Peistrup was able to exclaim, “We won normally!” after Wednesday night’s final out, it was still a nailbiter.
The Express are 3-7 through their first 10 games of the season, with hitting being a major factor in the struggles. With a .216 team batting average the squad ranks 18th out of the Northwoods’ 22 units. Despite the win, they mustered just three hits Wednesday.
“We’ve just got to figure out how to get more contact, put the ball in play,” Varsho said. “We’re striking out too much right now.”
There are still plenty of players getting work that are with the team on a temporary basis. The corps of full-time players grew larger Wednesday, with Central Michigan twins Drew and Zach Lechnir making their Northwoods League debuts. Varsho said more reinforcements are coming in the next few days.
The Express close out their homestand with a two-game series with the Waterloo Bucks Thursday and Friday. Then the team will hit the road for a four-game trip to St. Cloud and Bismarck.
First pitch Thursday is set for 6:35 p.m.
Eau Claire 1, Minnesota 0
Minn 000 000 000 — 0 2 1
EC 001 000 00x — 1 3 1
WP: Nick Malmberg (6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K). LP: Ryan Sleeper (2.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 3 K). Leading hitters: Jake Nelson 1-2 (R, BB), Henry George 1-3, Drew Lechnir 1-4.