(EauClaireExpress.com) If there have been any faults of the red hot Eau Claire Express recently, they have been shaky defense and leaving runners on base.
Both of those things came back to completely haunt the Express Sunday in a crucial loss during the Express' run to the playoffs, falling to the Battle Creek Bombers 6-0 in front of 1,757 fans at Carson Park.
Entering play today, Eau Claire was 2.5 games out of first place in the second half race in the South Division of the Northwoods League. With every game as an essential must-win from here out, Eau Claire came out flat on Sunday, much to the chagrin of Field Manager Dale Varsho.
"We played like a non-existing playoff team, is what he it looked like," Varsho said.
Defensively speaking, Eau Claire had three errors in the field, and all of them wound up to bite them in the back.
Already down 3-0 in the top of the fifth and a runner at first already, Battle Creek's Joe Serrano hit a sharp groundball to first base. Tim Wise was unable to handle it, and instead of maybe turning two, there were runners on the corners with one out. The very next batter hit a chopper to shortstop Blake Schmit for what appeared to be another inning-ending double play opportunity. Instead, Schmit lost it taking it out of his glove for the flip to second, and the runner scored, making it a 4-0 deficit.
However, Eau Claire had a chance as they loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh inning with that same 4-0 score. With the way the Express have played over the last 11 games, it seemed as if the magic might just continue. But they squandered the opportunity, hitting a shallow fly ball and striking out twice to end the inning. It essentially took all of the wind out of the Express' sails.
"That was a great opportunity to get back in the game," Varsho said. "A strikeout and a popup just aren't going to cut it. That would have really gave us energy."
Battle Creek tacked on two more runs late in the game, one on Matthew Goodson's second home run of the game. The other was unearned, as well, as an error in the inning led to an RBI single in the top of the ninth.
On the mound, Zak Shockley struggled to find the zone and lasted just four innings while giving up those three runs. Ed Brandsema then returned out of the bullpen to appear in his first game since July 5 after being sidelined with a leg injury. Brandsema entered play with a dazzling 2.05 ERA, and Varsho said it will be nice to have him for the stretch run.
"It's nice that he came out and threw a few innings for us and got out there and got a feel," Varsho said. "Hopefully he can build off of that for the rest of the way here."
Matt Panek and Carlos Chavez then both pitched an inning and both gave up a run, Panek's earned and Chavez's unearned.
Battle Creek starter Kenton San Miguel handcuffed Express hitters all night long, retiring 17 in a row at one point. Kellen Urbon and Bryan Westra both shut down the Express in the late innings of the game.
The first place team Eau Claire is chasing, the Lakeshore Chinooks, lost in La Crosse tonight, so the Express didn't lose any ground. However, the Loggers of La Crosse leaped-frogged the Express in the standings by a half-game for second place and it essentially a three-team race for that second half crown.
Eau Claire will look to get back on track tomorrow night as Brandon Jackson is set to take the mound for the Express. First pitch is set for 6:35 p.m. All Aboard.
NOTES: CATCHER MATT MENARD IS HEADING HOME TOMORROW MORNING TO GET SURGERY ON HIS EYE BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS.