WILLMAR — Speed has been Sam Baier’s calling card.
Batting at the top of the order for the Willmar Stingers, Baier is already one of the best base stealers in the Northwoods League with 42 swipes. And his legs came up big with Willmar’s first run and what would be the game-winning run as the Stingers advanced in the Northwoods League playoffs by beating St. Cloud 3-2 on Tuesday, sweeping the Rox in the best-of-three series for the Great Plains West sub-division championship.
“I’m not trying to do anything different. I’m just trying to have fun and do what I can for my team,” said Baier, a Springfield native and an upcoming senior at Augustana University. “Yesterday, I didn’t do much and other guys did. Today, I stepped up.”
Scoreless through four innings, Baier stepped into the box with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Meanwhile, teammate Brandon Bohning got to third after a sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch. Baier hit a dribbler and legged out an infield single, giving Bohning the opening to score the first run.
“I saw it off my bat and I didn’t know if I would be safe,” said Baier, who finished 3-for-4 with a stolen base. “I just ran as hard as I could because I wanted to score and keep our team going.”
On the mound, starter Garret Rukes kept St. Cloud in check, allowing one run on three hits and two walks with five strikeouts over seven innings to get the win. The lone run against Rukes came on a two-out RBI single from Jordan Barth.
“I just attacked them in early and executing with off-speed late,” Rukes said. “That seemed to work well for us.”
The Stingers brought home two more runs in the bottom of the seventh after Brennan McKenzie was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and Riley Johnson hit an infield single that brought home Baier.
Rukes would leave the game to the bullpen. The Rox got a run in the eighth off Bryant Claunch on a fielder’s choice. But that would be it as Claunch ended the inning with a strikeout, leaving three St. Cloud players on base.
Claunch got two outs to start the ninth before the Rox got a walk from Daniel Montgomery Jr. and a Ben Carew single that brought the game-tying run to third.
Aldo Fernandez was called to close the game, striking out Gus Steiger for the one-out save and the Great Plains West title.
“Claunch has been amazing for us all year long. Aldo, too,” Rukes said. “I had no doubt we’d get that one.”
On Wednesday, the Stingers will travel to East sub-division champion Eau Claire for a 6:35 p.m. game. The Express advanced after sweeping Waterloo following a 7-0 win Tuesday.