ST. CLOUD - Luke Becker's game-opening swing nearly gave the Willmar Stingers an important early lead against the Northwoods League's top pitcher in Monday night's single-elimination playoff game against the St. Cloud Rox.
The ball, however, hooked just foul and Aaron Rozek breathed a visible sigh of relief after a close call as Becker reversed course back toward the batter's box.
It was the only break the Rox's ace left-hander would need on the evening.
Rozek followed up his stellar regular season with a magnificent outing on the big stage, striking out 10 and allowing just one run over seven innings as the Rox brought the Stingers' season to an end with a 9-1 win at Joe Faber Field.
For the second consecutive season, Willmar saw its brief postseason come to an end by falling in St. Cloud in the opening round.
Last season, the Rox handed the Stingers a 2-1 loss in a pitchers' duel featuring the Stingers' Monday night's starter, Corey Binger. It was a different story the second time around, though.
Binger was unable to repeat last season's performance in which he allowed two runs over eight innings. The right-hander was able to record just seven outs, lasting 2-1/3 innings and giving up seven runs (six earned) on Monday.
In the first inning, the Rox took advantage of a pair of full-count walks that very easily could have gone as strikeouts, scoring three runs as Matt Tarantino and Angelo Altavilla notched RBI singles.
Drew Avans singled and scored his second run of the game in the second to extend St. Cloud's lead to 4-0 in the second inning.
Having erased late deficits against the Rox multiple times during the season, Willmar was still very much in the game—until Binger ran into more trouble in the third, that is.
Three of the first four batters to open the inning for the Rox reached base, bringing Binger's outing to an end.
Right-hander Nick Mears entered in relief and allowed two inherited runners to score, giving St. Cloud a 7-0 lead by the time the frame concluded.
Mears stabilized things as much as possible in middle relief for the Stingers, throwing 3-2/3 scoreless innings while striking out six. The right-hander finished the season without an earned run allowed in 13 innings for Willmar.
Nolan Bumstead, who became the first player to start all 72 games of the regular season in league history, accounted for the Stingers' lone run with a solo blast to left field off Rozek in the sixth inning.
Willmar tallied eight hits, but struggled to put together hard-hit rallies against Rozek as the lefty induced plenty of soft contact when he wasn't recording one of his double-digit strikeouts.
Led by a four-hit night from Daniel Schneemann and Cameron Edens' two hits, the Rox recorded 13 base knocks while drawing six walks.
One of the notable differences between the two sides was St. Cloud's retention of many of its top players over the course of the regular season, when it won the first half North Division title. In addition to Rozek, many of the Rox's top hitters—including Avans, Tarantino and Eden—remained in the lineup all the while through Monday's game.
The Stingers, meanwhile were unable to throw either of their top pitchers this season, Polo Portela and Gus Varland, due to innings limits. Additionally, two top-of-the-order hitters in Danny Rodriguez and Marcus Still had their seasons end last week.
The Rox advanced and will travel to play Mankato on Tuesday with a berth in the Summer Collegiate World Series on the line. Meanwhile for Willmar, for the third consecutive season, its stay in the postseason lasted just one game.
Once again on the wrong side of the baseball gods' coin flip of fate in a short postseason series, the Stingers dropped to 2-7 all-time in the NWL playoffs.
St. Cloud 9, Willmar 1
Willmar 000 001 000-1 8 1
St. Cloud 313 000 20x-9 14 0
Hitting - Willmar: Luke Becker 1-4 2b, Josh Bissonette 1-2, Nolan Bumstead 1-4 hr rbi r, Tyler Reichenborn 3-4, Justus Nelson 2-4 ... St. Cloud: Daniel Schneemann 4-5 rbi-2 r, Matthew Tarantino 4-5 2b r
Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Willmar: Corey Binger (L) 2.1-7-7-6-2-1, Nick Mears 3.2-5-0-0-2-6, Kale Latorre 0.1-1-2-2-2-0, Jacob Mertz 1.2-1-0-0-0-0 ... St. Cloud: Aaron Rozek (W) 7-7-1-1-0-10, Bobby Gauvreau 2-1-0-0-2-3