Tribune Staff Report
WILLMAR -- The Willmar Stingers wrapped up the first Northwoods League division title and playoff spot in their three-year history thanks to a victory Saturday night at Bill Taunton Stadium and Mike Lukkason's heroics 180 miles away in Rochester.
The Stingers clubbed Thunder Bay 9-2 on Saturday, and Lukkason hit a grand slam to lead Rochester to a 13-12 win over second-place St. Cloud, leaving the Rox 1-1/2 games back of the Stingers with just one game to play in the Northwoods League's North Division.
Willmar plays Thunder Bay in the regular-season finale at 6:05 p.m. Sunday at Taunton Stadium.
The Stingers will host Mankato Monday night in the first round of the playoffs at Bill Taunton Stadium. The first game of the best-of-three series begins at 7:05 p.m.
Tickets go on sale today at noon. They can be purchased either online at www.willmarstingers.com, by phone at 320-222-2010, or in person at the Stingers ticket office. Games 2 and 3 of the first round will be held in Mankato.
Alexandria entered Saturday just a game back of the Stingers but their division title hopes were dashed in a 14-2 loss to Duluth. On Saturday in Rochester, St. Cloud led 10-4 in the fifth inning before the Honkers began creeping back into the game. Lukkason's grand slam in the eighth erased the Rox' lead and pitcher Dakota Smith set St. Cloud down in order in the ninth to clinch the win and the Stingers' second-half division crown.
In the South Division, first-half champ LaCrosse plays second-half winner Wisconsin in the division playoffs. The winners of the best-of-three division playoffs then meet in a best-of-three series for the Northwoods League championship later this week.
On Saturday, the Stingers were hanging onto a two-run lead until they broke the game open with a five-run seventh.
Brennan Moore and Kenny Roberts drove in runs in the third to put the Stingers ahead, and Forrestt Allday and Moore drove home runs in the fourth to put Willmar up 4-1.
Thunder Bay took a 1-0 lead in the second on a Phillip Lyons home run, then cut the Stingers' lead to 4-2 on Kyle Lombardo's run-scoring single in the sixth.
But in the seventh, Moore was hit by a pitch, Michael Suchy walked and Roberts doubled in Moore. Max Kuhn followed with the big blow, a three-run homer that made it 8-2 Stingers. J.D. Dorgan later drove in another run and Willmar led 9-2.
Scott Lieser improved to 8-1 this season and lowered his earned-run average to 3.47 on Saturday, scattering seven hits over 6-2/3 innings. He didn't allow a walk and struck out seven.
Andre Wheeler didn't allow a hit in 2/3 innings, and Jonathon Flinn worked the final 1-2/3 innings, striking out one.
Moore was 3-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs scored, Allday had a hit in two trips, drove in a run and scored twice. Roberts was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored, and Hunter Dozier had two hits.
Kuhn, Dorgan and Karl Sorenson all had one hit.