Stingers crowned 1st-half champions
WILLMAR — The Willmar Stingers are back in the postseason for the second time in the team’s history, but first they have to play the second half of the Northwoods League season.
The Stingers clinched Saturday night, beating the Rochester Honkers in a wild 10-9 game with Brian Pruett scoring the eventual winning run in the seventh inning on a single, stolen base and an error on the catcher.
They got off to a sizzling start to the season, sitting at 14-4 on June 17, but it turned into a grind down the stretch, Stingers’ manager Drew Saberhagen said.
“We played 28 innings at Rochester in two days, come back and win home games against first-place La Crosse in the South, go eight hours to Thunder Bay and play two games, get back at 6 a.m. and turn around and play (Saturday) night to clinch the title,” he said. “Credit the guys keeping their minds right and continuing to grind out at-bats.”
Though they hung 10 runs on the Honkers in the clinching game, the team offense is middle-of-the-pack in the 18-team Northwoods League — they are seventh in the league in average (.259), tied for 10th in the league in OPS (.696) and ninth in home runs (12).
So how have they done it? Pitching, pitching and more pitching.
They have the second-lowest team ERA (2.75), second-lowest batting average against (.222), fewest walks allowed, fewest hits allowed, fewest wild pitches, second-fewest hit batters and four complete games from their starters.
“We’ve had some unbelievable starts, we’ve had some unbelievable guys in the bullpen and we’ve scored runs when we needed them,” Saberhagen said.
The pitching staff early on has been led by starters Brady Anderson, Andrew Towns and Austin Klein. The trio has combined for eight wins, 99.1 innings pitched and all three have sub-three ERAs.
Due to innings limits, Klein will be shut down for the year after today’s start and Anderson will be moved to the bullpen, but the Stingers have plenty of other rotation options like Matt Snyder (17 innings, 2.12 ERA), Kurt Yinger (17.1, 3.64), T.J. Whidby (23.1, 3.47) and newcomer A.J. Puckett (7, 0.00).
The relief arms are just as formidable, with Will Lydon, Josh Matheson, Brantley Claunch, Ben Gullo and Garrett Anderson all pitching well.
“(The bullpen) is interchangeable and able to eat innings,” Saberhagen said. “We have guys who can go more than one inning, which is huge, especially with all the doubleheaders we’ll have in second half.”
On the other side of the ball, Nick Rivera, Max Ayoub and Reagan Fowler have been the hottest hitters in a balanced offense.
Rivera leads the team with five home runs and 18 RBI, and is tied for second in the league with 23 walks.
Ayoub has gone deep four times and is hitting .316 with 13 RBI, and Fowler leads the team with his .333 average and has driven in 11 runs despite being a late arrival to the team.
But they’ve gotten solid contributions from every spot in the order, like Max Dutto (.247 average, 14 RBI), Sean Beesley (.293 average, nine stolen bases), Dan Motl (16 runs, 10 steals) and Brian Pruett (.274 average, 17 runs).
“We have guys throughout the lineup that can come up with big hits,” Saberhagen said. “You look at stats and they don’t always tell you everything — Jack Ross is hitting around .210 and he had three game-winning RBIs in a row. Guys who do little things like Dutto, Pruett and Hutton Moyer — there are no easy outs, and a lot of guys who have yet to play their best baseball.”
Saberhagen said the biggest key is the team’s heart and attitude.
“These kids are willing to do whatever it takes,” he said. “So many times you see in summer ball when it’s a group of individuals. We have one team. … The good thing is we won the first half, so guys know we’re in the playoffs. I think we have a high-character group of guys that want to be part of something special.”