EAU CLAIRE — The year 2019 has been a successful one so far for Zach Gilles.
But the McDonell graduate in his third year of roaming the outfield for the Eau Claire Express of the Northwoods League knows it could always be better.
The 2017 Northwoods League All-Star returned to the team last week on the heels of a strong junior season for he and his team at Central Michigan University, now Gilles is looking for a strong summer campaign in his final season with the Express. That means spending plenty of time tinkering with his swing and approach while playing in one of the nation’s premier summer college leagues for a third straight year.
“This summer I’ve decided to work a lot more on my rhythm at the plate — because I’ve always been more of a step and go kind of guy — I’m trying to work more on my rhythm so I can be more relaxed at the plate and that will help drive more baseballs,” Gilles said.
Gilles graduated from McDonell in 2016 and was ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the state and 377th best prospect in the country by Prep Baseball Report as he joined the Central Michigan program. Gilles made an immediate impact with the Chippewas, playing in 53 games with 50 starts as a freshman. He posted a .233 batting average with a .360 on-base percentage and 17 stolen bases in his first season of Division I college baseball. Gilles upped his average to .283 in his sophomore season with a .390 OBP with six doubles, three triples and a home run in 55 games played.
But it was his junior season that was the best to date for both Gilles and the program. The speedster hit .351 with an on-base percentage close to .450 while stealing 20 bases and drawing more walks (42) than strikeouts (40) on the year. For Gilles there wasn’t a great epiphany or new-found mechanical adjustment discovered, just more comfort from familiarity and reps.
“I think I’ve become a more mature hitter and getting better pitches to hit at the plate instead of just going up there and free swinging,” Gilles said of the improvement. “I’m just sticking to my approach, which is to drive baseballs and that’s helped me take more walks, get better pitches to hit and hit the ball harder.”
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As a team Central Michigan posted a 47-14 record, tying the program record for wins in a season while winning Mid-American Conference regular season and tournament championships on the way to the team’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1995.
The Chippewas opened the NCAA Tournament by knocking off Miami (Fla.) 6-5 in its tourney opener on May 31 with Gilles scoring the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning on David Cole’s two-out single. One day later Central Michigan fell to No. 6 Mississippi State 7-2 in a game where Gilles and the Chippewas faced Milwaukee Brewers first round draft pick Ethan Small on the mound. Gilles finished 2-for-5 in the contest, singling off the left-handed Small in the third inning and referred to Small’s pitching repertoire as ‘filthy’. Central Michigan was eliminated from the tournament by the Hurricanes 18-3 one day later.
Gilles made his return to the Express on the Fourth of July. In addition to playing his third summer in the Northwoods League, Gilles is also building up his resume to get into pharmacy school after graduation by working at The Medicine Shoppe in Chippewa Falls as a technician. Gilles has a .389 batting average with five walks and stolen bases in abbreviated action entering Friday evening’s home contest against Waterloo.
Gilles hit .315 with 55 runs scored and 25 stolen bases during his all-star season of 2017 before hitting .217 during an eight-game 2018 season cut short due to injury. The Express hit the all-star break following two games over the weekend with Thunder Bay. The team returns to action on Thursday at home against the La Crosse Loggers to start its regular season homestretch push that carries into mid-August.
When Gilles heads back to Mt. Pleasant, Mich. for his senior season at CMU later this year, he does so with the expectation for his Chippewas to make another run at a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Until then, he’s excited to play close to home for one more summer while starting to piece together his post-baseball life.
“It’s pretty cool to get back out here and play in front of the home crowd,” Gilles said. “I’ve always liked playing out here (at Carson Park) and playing my third year here is going to be pretty special, knowing it’s my last so I’m going to try to enjoy it and make the most of it.”