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WATERLOO — Great playoff baseball is often decided by inches and seconds. Such was the case Monday night at Riverfront Stadium.

With two outs and a pinch runner Noah Conlon standing on second base, Waterloo’s Kyler Arenado pulled a single through the left side of the infield. Conlon briefly hesitated to let the ball pass, and was waved home on the play.

Eau Claire left fielder Zach Giles’ accurate throw beat Conlon by a couple steps and catcher David LaManna made the tag at the plate as the Express opened their three-game series with a 2-1 victory over the Bucks in Riverfront Stadium’s 2019 finale.

“We made a baserunning change to get a guy that was faster in there, Arenado gets a single through the six hole and a bang, bang play,” Waterloo manager Casey Harms said. “Hopefully we watch the video and that’s the right call. That’s the tale of both of these clubs — we’re right there next to each other and it was a game of inches. … A great effort by our guys. A very resilient effort tonight, and I was proud of how they played.”

The Bucks will travel to Eau Claire for a 6:35 game tonight in attempt to extend their first postseason appearance since 2013. Should Waterloo advance, any remaining series will be a one-game playoff on the road.

“I know Noah (Conlon) is going to go out and give us another good start,” Waterloo pitcher Jack Parkinson said, assessing Game 2. “I think our bats are really starting to come around. I know we can we do it. We’ve just got to catch that little bit of fire and we’re just going to keep rolling.”

Parkinson embraced the playoff atmosphere on this night, allowing just four hits and two walks in seven quality innings of work. His first trip through Eau Claire’s lineup took just 30 pitches as he faced the minimum number of hitters over three innings.

The Express then forced Parkinson to throw 28 pitches in the fourth frame. Leadoff hitter Cole Cabrera lined a full-count double to the left field corner and Giles followed with a bunt single before stealing second.

“He (Cabrera) worked a good at bat to get it to full and then we called an inside fastball, and I put it there and he hit it,” Parkinson said, addressing one of the game’s pivotal at bats. “You’ve got to tip your cap in a situation like that. He made a good swing on a good pitch.”

With runners in scoring position and one out, a sharply hit ball by David LaManna just eluded the outstretched glove of Bucks’ diving second baseman Ethan Copeland and Eau Claire scored its only two runs.

Copeland later made a pair of tough plays up the middle, and Waterloo shortstop Bennett Hostetler charged a slow roller for a key out with a runner on third that kept the Bucks within a run entering the ninth inning.

In addition to the final play, Eau Claire was also brilliant on defense. Cabrera robbed a pair of drives to the right-field gap, Eldridge native Sam Stonskas elevated for a catch at shortstop and third baseman Brandon Dieter dove to glove a shot down the line before firing across the diamond for the out.

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Waterloo’s Dylan Phillips finally solved Eau Claire starter Nick Alvarado by leading off the bottom of the fourth inning with a solo home run for his first longball at Riverfront Stadium, but the Bucks didn’t advance another runner to second base until the bottom of the ninth.

“Their defense played outstanding,” Phillips said. “They saved a lot of extra base hits from us. It’s playoff baseball so everyone is playing hard.”

Waterloo’s second-year veteran Patrick Ferguson gave his team life in the final inning when he pulled a one-out double to the right-field corner for the second hit off reliever Kuster Kinlecheenie. Following Copeland’s fly to right, Arenado came up with a two-out single, but Eau Claire made one last play in the field to preserve the win.

“It was the two best teams in the division and it was as good of a baseball game as we’ve seen this season,” Harms said.

A crowd of 309 die-hard fans made their presence known in this extra game before the lights turned off one last time in 2019 at Riverfront Stadium. Harms describes this Bucks team as a group that has maximized its opportunities with hopes of four more roads games yet to be played.

“We’ve had crowds of 2,400, but this is the best crowd,” Harms said. “They were into it, you heard them. They had the force of 2,500 because they really cared about the team and care about their success. It was an electric environment despite it being an empty, misty ballpark tonight.”

Waterloo 2, Eau Claire 1

Eau Claire 000 200 000 — 2 5 0

Waterloo 000 100 000 — 1 7 0

Nick Alvarado, Kuster Kinlecheenie (7) and David LaManna. Jack Parkinson, Brett Lockwood (8) and Alonzo Rubalcaba. WP — Alvarado (1-0). LP — Parkinson (0-1). Save — Kinlechneenie (1).

2B — Cole Cabrera, Connor Laspina (EC), Patrick Ferguson (Wat.). HR — Dylan Phillips (Wat.).

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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