The Willmar Stingers took another step forward in their postseason push on Thursday night, defeating the Waterloo Bucks 6-2 at Riverfront Stadium.
Danny Rodriguez and Luke Becker each had three-hit nights and drove in a combined five runs as an early 5-0 lead held up for the Stingers.
Stingers left-hander Nick Lackney did not allow any earned runs over 4-2/3 innings, but it was a dominant Gus Varland who picked up the win after stabilizing the game in a relief effort. Varland, normally used in a starter's role, lowered his season earned-run average to 1.42 with 4-1/3 scoreless frames.
With the win, Willmar entered into a three-way tie with Mankato and Eau Claire atop the North Division for first place in the second half.
Equally as important, the Stingers drew even with the Bucks in terms of overall season record. The race between the two teams could come into play if Eau Claire wins the division, as it would likely mean Willmar and Waterloo would be vying for the final Wild Card spot.
Coming off a 20-3 blowout loss to St. Cloud on Tuesday, the Stingers came out swinging against Bucks right-hander Caleb Miley.
Rodriguez, who drove in Becker three times, opened the scoring with an RBI groundout in the first inning Josh Bissonette made it a 2-0 Willmar lead two pitches later with a single to drive in Nolan Bumstead.
The Stingers would take a 3-0 advantage in the third inning after Becker led off the inning with a single and Rodriguez laced a two-out base hit to plate him. Then, in the fourth, Becker took on the role of run-producer with a two-run single as Willmar scored the first five runs of the game.
Despite notching nine hits, the Bucks really only made one serious threat to get back in the game.
In the fifth inning, Nicola Mislinski's sacrifice fly and Deion Thompson's RBI single drew Waterloo within 5-2. Lackney then walked Brandon Gutzler to load the bases, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate with two outs.
Not taking any risks, Stingers manager Bo Henning called upon Varland to escape the jam, and he did just that with a flyout to left field.
Rodriguez added some insurance with his third RBI hit of the night in the eighth inning, a single that once again scored Becker.
Harrison Schnurbusch and Tyler Reichenborn both joined Rodriguez and Becker in reaching base three times for Willmar, which notched 13 hits.
Varland now ranks second in the Northwoods League in ERA at 1.42, trailing only former Stingers right-hander Polo Portela, whose NWL season came to an end after reaching his innings limit last week.
Willmar 6, Waterloo 2
Stingers 201 200 010-6 13 1
Bucks 000 020 000-2 9 4
Hitting - Willmar: Luke Becker 3-5 rbi-2 r-2, Nolan Bumstead 1-4 r, Danny Rodriguez 3-5 rbi-3, Josh Bissonette 1-5, Caleb Ledbetter 1-5, Tyler Reichenborn 2-4 bb, Tyler Murray 1-5 r, Harrison Schnurbusch 1-3 bb-2 r ... Waterloo: Deion Thompson 2-5 3b rbi, Dalton Hurd 2-5
Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Willmar: Nick Lackney 4.2-5-2-0-3-2, Gus Varland (W) 4.1-4-0-0-0-2 ... Waterloo: Caleb Miley (L) 4-9-5-3-0-1, Nathan Walker 1-1-0-0-0-1, Jacob Nelson 2-2-0-0-1-1, Brandon Downey 1-1-1-1-1-1, Matt Whalen 1-0-0-0-1-0