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Alexandria's Stockert becomes Stingers' unexpected ace

The Willmar Stingers have starting pitchers from all over the country. They have NCAA Division I hurlers and they have the ace of the DII national champions. Their best starter, though, is homegrown. Blake Stockert is an Alexandria native who rec...

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Willmar left-hander Blake Stockert fires a pitch during a Jne 24 game against the Waterloo Bucks. Stockert leads all Stingers starters with 22 strike outs and a 0.91 ERA that ranks among the best in the Northwoods League. Jake Schultz, Tribune.

The Willmar Stingers have starting pitchers from all over the country. They have NCAA Division I hurlers and they have the ace of the DII national champions. Their best starter, though, is homegrown.

Blake Stockert is an Alexandria native who recently finished his sophomore season at North Dakota State. Though he wasn't necessarily expected to be the top starter for the Stingers, his numbers show that he's been up to the task.

Through four starts, Stockert leads the team with a meager 0.91 earned-run average and 22 strikeouts through 19-2/3 innings. His ERA is the third-best among starters in the Northwoods League but he's quick to point out he can improve.

"The only thing I can really stunt myself on is the walks," Stockert said. "I've had 13 through 20 innings and that's way too many. So if I was going to perfect something it would be just hitting the strike zone better."

Developing a changeup is one of the keys to his success this summer. With his fastball hovering around 84 to 85 miles-per-hour, his changeup comes in at 75-77 mph. That difference, he said, is what has helped him the most.

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"I've been changing speeds a lot better. My accuracy hasn't been there but the change in speeds leaves locating easier, leaving the ball down and it's been working pretty well," Stockert said.

Stockert has also seen a change in his role this season. As a freshman at NDSU he was used strictly out of the bullpen, appearing in 16 games and had a 2-2 record and a 4.76 ERA. He was also a reliever last summer with the now-defunct Alexandria Blue Anchors, but when the Friday starter for the Bison went down this season, Stockert jumped at the chance to join the rotation.

"I was really happy," Stockert said. "It was a huge jump (in confidence). I (started) in high school so it was something that was so basic and getting back to that again is nice. It's good to have that routine. It's nice knowing that you have to extremely focus on only a couple of days a week."

Though his first few Bison starts didn't go as well as he might have hoped, he finished the season with five strong starts, going at least six innings in four of them. As a starter, he went 2-4 with a 4.30 ERA and 27 strikeouts.

As a Stinger, Stockert has been able to work strictly as a starter and that has changed the way he approaches the game.

"I can put all of my focus into the one day that I start instead of in the 'pen you don't know if you're going to throw one day or not," Stockert said. "I'm not a big fan of getting myself ready really quick, I like to take my time and slowly get into it."

Time is plentiful when you're a starter in the Northwoods League and being on a team that has played 31 games in 31 days with only a single off-day. The day-to-day life of a NWL ballplayer has been a bigger adjustment than his move from the bullpen to the rotation.

"It's a grind, everyone says it is," Stockert said. "You come to the ballpark and some days you don't want to be there, that's being brutally honest. But it's something we get to do every day and you've got to be happy about that."

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With his hometown Northwoods League team out of the picture, he's also had to adjust to living with a host family-something he's been very happy with.

"I've loved it," Stockert said about his host family, Bonnie and Lyle Lange. "It's the first time I've done it but they're great people, they help out with everything and they do what they can. I just try to be nice back and it's as simple as that. They're awesome people. I couldn't have asked for better people."

He's not the only athlete in his own family, either. His brother, Carter, is a strong pitcher in his own right. The 6-foot-3 lefthander pitched a gem against the Willmar VFW I team on Tuesday, striking out 14 batters while only giving up one run off of three hits for the Alexandria 16s. At the same time, Blake was just across the street watching Stinger starter Jonny Ortiz warm up in the bullpen.

"I feel one day he's going to be better than me, to be perfectly honest," Stockert said. "He's a stud right now and I like to be a good example and show him the right ways and do everything I possibly can because I know he has a bright future ahead of him."

For now, though, the Stingers are the ones looking at Stockert as a good example. He's developing into the team's de-facto ace and will need to lead the rotation that has had a 4.26 ERA up to this point. He's due to pitch next today in Thunder Bay.

Related Topics: WILLMAR STINGERS
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