After 14 years, Eau Claire Express fans know what to expect when heading down to Carson Park for a game.
There will be jeering at the beer batter, the opposing player who gifts the crowd with cheaper drinks if he strikes out. The team’s mascots will lead local children through games on the field. A rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” will ring throughout the stadium midway through the seventh.
You can add one more mainstay to the list this year – Cole Cabrera getting on base.
Eau Claire’s consistent outfielder has made it to first in all 37 games he’s played in this year heading into Thursday night. His league-leading .533 on-base percentage is over 30 points greater than the second-ranked hitter, Bismarck’s Zack Gregory.
He’s only failed to record a hit or walk three times heading into Thursday night’s matchup with Duluth – July 12 against Waterloo and Tuesday against Willmar, when he got on due to errors, and Wednesday night against Willmar, when he hit into a fielder’s choice.
Cabrera hasn’t been keeping track. The Honolulu, Hawaii, native was taken aback when presented with his impressive feat.
“That’s pretty incredible, actually,” he said. “I really don’t think about it. You just want to have a good game for your team, a good game for yourself. I think I’ve just been fortunate enough to see good pitches and put good swings on balls.”
Cabrera has used his patience to his advantage throughout the year. He’s second in the Northwoods in walks with 57, nearly twice as many free trips as the second-ranked Eau Claire batter.
“He takes pitches so well,” Express manager Dale Varsho said. “That’s his consistency. He loves to be on base.”
“He’s a very mature hitter at the plate,” added teammate Zach Gilles. “He doesn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches. If he’s at 3-1, he’s going to take a borderline pitch and not be too aggressive.”
Gilles, a McDonell product, has great appreciation for Cabrera’s work considering their similar styles. He’s the only player on the team that ranks higher than Cabrera in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), though he’s taken nearly 150 less at-bats.
The former Mack said Cabrera is the type of player teammates can learn from.
“I’ve been trying to take a couple things from him,” Gilles said. “We talk about hitting and his thought process at the plate.”
So what makes Cabrera so consistent? He said it comes down to his mental state, a focus on keeping a simple approach.
“I try not to think too much at the plate,” he said. “I just go out and play ball and have fun. I’m trying to not care as much about the results but focus on the process of having a good mind and clear goals. I think it’s about having a right mindset.”
Cabrera is a rising junior at Cal Poly, a school high on his list thanks to playing in the same conference at the University of Hawaii. Historically, he’s been a single machine. In two years of college ball, he’s failed to record a home run or a triple and only smacked nine doubles in 196 at-bats.
He’s improved on his power with the Express, as evident by his high .974 OPS. He’s hit seven doubles, two triples and a pair of home runs in 118 Northwoods League at-bats.
“I’ve been on a different strength program,” Cabrera said. “A lot of my teammates and I, Brock Burton specifically, try to go every day. I think getting into the weight room before games has translated well for both of us on the field."
Both bombs came in the same game, a July 21 contest at subdivision rival Thunder Bay. He personally outscored the Border Cats in that game, knocking in five runs in Eau Claire’s 9-3 victory.
“I’m really not one to hit home runs, so when it happened in Thunder Bay, it was really a surprise to everyone,” he said. “It was definitely fun for sure. I could get used to that feeling.”
While Western Wisconsin is no Hawaii, Cabrera said he couldn’t have asked for a better place to play. He said the weather hasn’t bothered him too much, either.
“Wisconsin’s actually had great weather,” Cabrera said. “It’s kind of what I’m used to back home. … I’m fortunate enough to get the nice summer weather out here instead of the winters.”
Thankfully for the Express, Cabrera said he’ll be with the team through the end of the year thanks to Cal Poly’s late start date. That’s music to the ears for an Eau Claire team in a battle with Duluth and La Crosse for a Great Plains East second half title and a trip to the playoffs.
“I’m just trying to grind out these last few games here,” Cabrera said. “Just trying to soak in every last minute I have in the Northwoods, whether it be hanging out outside the field or coming into BP every day.”