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Stingers edge Mankato to force Game 3

Willmar Stingers starter A.J. Puckett delivers a pitch during the first inning of the Stingers’ 3-2 victory over Mankato in the Northwoods League North Division playoffs Tuesday at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Puckett worked six inning to earn the victory, which tied the series 1-1 and forced a third and deciding game today in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Tom Larson)

WILLMAR — Starting pitcher A.J. Puckett allowed just three hits and struck out seven in six innings of work and a three-hit performance at the plate from Frankie Rios helped the Willmar Stingers edge the visiting Mankato MoonDogs 3-2 in the second game of the Northwoods League North Division Championship Series Tuesday at Bill Taunton Stadium.

The win allowed the first-half champion Stingers (47-27) to even the best-of-three series and snap a four-game losing streak to Mankato (43-31). The final game of the NDCS is today at 7:05 p.m. in Willmar. The winner will take on South champion Lakeshore (52-21) in the Summer Collegiate World Series starting Thursday.

Both teams scored a run in the first inning with Mankato’s being unearned after Willmar shortstop Max Dutto committed two errors. The Stingers’ run came after Sean Beesley singled to lead off the frame and Rios followed with a double that struck the fence in right-center. Mankato starter Dillon Williams hit Jack Ross and walked Brian Pruett to load the bases, but the left-hander got Brett Barbier to fly out to end the inning.

Puckett escaped harm in the second after surrendering two singles, but the right-hander gave up a run in the third after walking the leadoff batter and hitting the next batter. The Stingers, however, put Puckett in line for the win after scoring twice in the bottom half of the frame.

Singles from Rios and Nick Rivera, which was a surprising bunt, sandwiched Reagan Fowler reaching on an error, allowing Willmar to load the bases. Williams then struck out Ross, but Pruett hit a flyball to left that allowed Rios to tag from third and tie the game at 2-2. Barbier then singled to load the bases again and Max Ayoub followed with an infield single to knock in Fowler and gave Willmar a 3-2 lead.

“Puckett made some big pitches with two outs,” said Willmar manager Drew Saberhagen. “You get second and third with nobody out and only give up one run, that’s huge.”

Puckett settled in after three so-so innings, sending the MoonDogs down 1-2-3 in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Saberhagen then sent Matt Geislinger to the mound and the 2011 Eden Valley-Watkins graduate responded by striking out four in three hitless innings of work to save Puckett’s win.

“Puckett was (throwing) 91 (mph), 93, touching 96 ... three pitches, and he only got stronger as the game went on, and Matt Geislinger did what he’s been doing all summer,” said Saberhagen.

In fact, only one player — Rios in the fourth — got a hit after the fourth inning. Both teams struck out 11 times, drew three walks and combined to strand 14 baserunners.

Rios was also the only player to collect more than one hit, helping Willmar outhit Mankato 7-3.

“You look at his stats and it’s not overwhelming,” said Saberhagen of his third baseman. “He’s had two home runs robbed and he’s had some really hard hit balls right at people. He’s barreling balls up and now they’re finding spots, but I think he’s still owed a couple.”

Kurt Yinger (3-2, 3.67 ERA) will get the start today for Willmar. Yinger pitched a complete game against Mankato on July 3, but the right-hander was tagged with the loss after his teammates produced just one run.