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Fighting Fish third baseman Ryan Gilbertson fires to first after fielding a ground ball for the final out of the fifth inning as an Elmwood runner breaks for third in River Falls' 12-2 victory over Elmwood Saturday at the high school field. Gilbertson drove in five runs in the win, which clinched a berth for the Fish in the WBA state playoffs.

Fish still in the hunt

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Last year the River Falls Fighting Fish were just happy to make the Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs.

This year they want to reach the finals.

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The Fish clinched their second consecutive berth in the postseason with a convincing 12-2 victory over the Elmwood Expos Saturday at the high school field. The win, coupled with last Wednesday's 6-5 victory over the Osceola Braves, improved River Falls' record to 9-4 in St. Croix Valley Baseball League play (14-11 overall) and moved them to within a half-game of Hudson for first place in the SCVBL North Division.

Despite already wrapping up a berth in next month's WBA playoffs, Fighting Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said the team can't afford to let up in its final three SCVBL games. The Fish played the Bay City Bombers (5-8, 6-14) Tuesday night in Ellsworth and will conclude league play with two home games this weekend -- Saturday against the New Richmond Millers (8-6, 15-9) and Sunday against the Plum City Blues (7-7, 11-9).

"It's a great feeling in mid-July, knowing that we're already guaranteed a playoff spot," Eidem said. "But we can't let up because seeding is important, especially with the single elimination format."

The Fish currently sport the third best record in the SCVBL behind Prescott (11-2) and Hudson (10-4) but hold the tiebreaker against both thanks to victories earlier in the season. While they are 3-0 against the top two teams in the league, they have struggled to a 1-2 record against the SCVBL's cellar-dwellers -- St. Croix Falls and Hager City -- who are a combined 6-22 in league play.

"It's hard not to kick ourselves for losses to St. Croix Falls and Hager City because we'd be leading the league," Eidem noted. "But ultimately I think those may have been important learning games for us to stay grounded."

Since losing to Hager City 8-7 on July 4, the Fish have won four straight, including Saturday's 12-2 playoff-clinching over the Expos. Ryan Gilbertson singled, doubled and drove in five runs and Eidem was 3-for-3 with two RBI as River Falls closed out the game in seven innings by virtue of the 10-run mercy rule.

Brian Giebel added a pair of RBI and Joe Paatalo and Sam Giliuson drove in a run each while Sean Anderson and Trevor Gutting combined on the mound to scatter six hits and strike out five. Anderson worked the first three innings and earned the win while Gutting worked the final four innings for the save.

Last Wednesday at Osceola, Nathan Brom's RBI single in the bottom of the eighth scored Clint Kempf from second to break a 5-5 tie, and closer Rick Wells struck out the side in the top of the ninth to give the Fish a 6-5 win over the Braves.

The score was tied 1-1 before Dan Kretovics delivered a bases-loaded triple that highlighted a four-run seventh and put River Falls ahead 5-1.

Osceola tied it with four runs in the top of the eighth before Kempf reached base with his third hit of the night in the bottom of the eighth and scored the game-winning run on Brom's single.

Gilbertson also had three hits for River Falls while Brom and Giliuson had two each. Wells, the Fish's third pitcher of the night, got the win in relief of starter Luke Meier and Gutting.

Saturday's contest against New Richmond is "Give a Man a Chicken Day," sponsored by Lazy River Bar and Grill. Fans are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item for the River Falls food pantry and the first 30 fans in attendance will be treated to free fried chicken, courtesy of Lazy River. Food and cash donations for the food pantry will be accepted throughout the game.

Sunday's game against Plum City is "Fan Appreciation Day," sponsored by Kilkarney Hills Golf Course. Raffle and other prizes will be distributed throughout the game.

Both games this weekend are free and begin at 1 p.m. at the high school field.

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