WILLMAR — Get your popcorn, peanuts and Cracker Jacks ready.
After their season was delayed by more than a month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Willmar Stingers are finally set to have an opening day.
In a matchup between teams in the newly designated Minnesota-Iowa pod, the Stingers kick off their 2020 campaign as hosts to the St. Cloud Rox at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Willmar originally was scheduled to open its season on the road against the Mankato MoonDogs on May 26 before playing its home opener the next day. Now, the Stingers will hit the field on the first of July to start a seven-week summer sprint.
The players arrived in Willmar last Wednesday. The team held its first practice the following day and have had two-hour practices everyday since. With the first few days geared toward drills, the Stingers began playing intersquad games this past weekend to allow hitters to get reacclimated with live pitching.
“They were excited to be out there,” new Stingers field manager Al Leyva said. “Practice on the first day was from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and everybody was there a half hour before. I think they’re just excited to get back on the field and have that opportunity.
“I think the excitement is there because they haven’t been on the field for a while, where before they would say ‘I get to play summer ball,’ but we play 72 games. Add that to the 50 games (in the spring) and that’s 120 games. So it’s a grind for them. But now they’re coming in super, super fresh.”
The Northwoods League is allowing teams to expand the roster to 35 this season, five more than typical.
While all of the league pitching guidelines remain the same, pitchers comprise 19 of the 34 players on the Stingers’ expanded roster, and they may stand to benefit the most from avoiding the wear and tear from a spring season. After observing a few bullpen sessions, Leyva says his pitchers’ arms are particularly fresh, with several showing high velocity and good break on their breaking balls. Still, Leyva and new pitching coach Kevin Smith will remain precautious with the staff, keeping pitch counts low (35-40 pitches) and inserting three or four pitchers into a game through the season’s first few weeks.
One of the players that has looked sharp early on is right-handed pitcher Jayson Newman. The 6-foot-4 redshirt senior from California State University-Northridge is back with the Stingers after splitting time on the mound and as a designated hitter in 2018. Last season, Newman did not play summer ball after suffering an arm injury that required surgery during the spring.
“His velocity looks like it never left,” Leyva said of Newman, who is expected to be one of the team’s closers. “He was throwing 91-92 miles per hour, and the other day, it looked like it was about the same. So I’m excited to see that.”
Newman is one of nine players back with the Stingers. Pitchers John Bezdicek, Ricky Maddock III, Jack Zigan and Trevor Divinski, along with infieldiers Ryan Johnson, Chase Stanke, Brannan McKenzie and Jaxon Hallmark all donning the yellow and black again.
Different from in years past, Leyva also highlighted how deep his squad is. In addition to five left-handed pitchers, Willmar features five left-handed batters and three switch hitters. From there, Leyva will have the ability to tinker with his lineup and play with the matchups.
“I think I can interchange these guys very easily,” Leyva said. “We got a lot of depth on our team and I can see that already.”
Following the home opener, Willmar will travel to Iowa for a two-game set against the Waterloo Bucks before returning home for three games over the weekend versus Rochester. The Stingers will host a doubleheader against the Honkers on Saturday before closing the series Sunday night.
Overall, Willmar will play five home doubleheaders, four in July.
There isn’t a postseason to gear up for, as the squad with the best winning percentage in the five-team Minnesota-Iowa pod will be declared its season champion. But for the Stingers’ coaching staff, this season, like every season, is about player development and making sure the players return to school in one piece.
“The main thing is that these guys get their innings in, get their (at-bats) in and play the game the right way,” Leyva said. “That’s what’s most important. Hopefully, during that time, we are winning ball games as well. ... The main thing for us every year always is that we keep our players healthy and getting better so that when they go back to school, they’re in a great situation to improve their skills and help their college succeed.”