Tribune Staff Report
WILLMAR - The Willmar Stingers have had their Northwoods League playoff berth in hand for weeks but they needed a win Sunday in the regular-season finale to wrap up home-field advantage when the league’s division playoffs begin today.
One of their remaining goals for the 2014 season was accomplished.
Starter Ben Gullo side-stepped six walks to work an effective four innings, Joe Zorn, All-Star Brady Anderson and Brantley Claunch held down the fort in relief and the Stingers bounced Waterloo from playoff contention with a 5-1 victory before 1,550 fans at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Waterloo entered the game trailing Mankato by one-half game in the North Division second-half standings. Mankato undoubtedly was on edge after losing earlier Sunday, but the Bucks once again couldn’t solve Stinger pitching. Willmar won all eight meetings with Waterloo this season.
The victory was key since the Bucks would have won the North second half with a victory, and they also would have locked up home-field advantage by virtue of having a better overall record - by one game - than the Stingers.
Willmar opens the North Division playoffs at Mankato at 7:05 p.m. today at Franklin-Rogers Park.
The second game of the series is set for 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at Bill Taunton Stadium, and a third and deciding game will be played in Willmar at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, if needed.
In the South Division, Lakeshore has home-field advantage in its series agains the Wisconsin Woodchucks.
The North and South divisional winners meet for the Northwoods League championship beginning Thursday.
On Sunday, Gullo and Waterloo starter Aaron Myers worked quickly through the first three innings, with a bad-hop grounder by Ryan Nagle going for a single. Gullo walked Blake Berger to put two on in the third with one out, but he caught Pat MacKenzie’s bunt popup and got Jon McAllister to fly out to center to end the threat.
Stinger Jack Ross reached on a Myers walk in the second but was promptly erased when Casey Hughston bounced into a double play.
But Willmar broke through in the fourth when Sean Beesley reached on a dropped third strike.
Beesley stole second and scored on Brian Pruett’s double to center field. Reagan Fowler followed with a single and Pruett scored to make it 2-0 when Stingers’ All-Star Nick Rivera lifted a sacrifice fly to center.
Gullo gave way to reliever a sacrifice fly to center.
Gullo gave way to reliever Zorn, who earned the win with a stellar three innings. Zorn pitched perfect ball, striking out four, before Anderson took over in the eighth. He, too, worked a perfect inning, and Clauch surrendered a ninth inning run before closing out the victory.
The Stingers added two more runs in the sixth inning. Pruett and Fowler led off the inning with singles and River doubled in Pruett. Ross followed with a single that scored scored Fowler and the Stingers led 4-0.
In the seventh, Beesley led off with a single to right and moved to third on Pruett’s single to right. Rivera again lived up to his All-Star status with another double to left that scored Beesley.