WILLMAR — It had been over three months since players on the Willmar Stingers had heard the call to “play ball.”

Heck, there were doubts whether there would be any baseball played this summer.

But on Wednesday at Bill Taunton Stadium, the coaches and players finally got their first chance to run out on the baseball diamond for a game since college baseball was shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In the season-opener, the Willmar Stingers held on for a 3-2 Northwoods League victory over the visiting St. Cloud Rox.

“We were very excited and had six days of practice to get ready for this,” said Willmar manager Al Leyva. “It was a good win for our team. It was just good to get out on the field, even for the coaches.”

Willmar outfielder Dylan Pigford lays down a bunt during the Stingers' season opener against the St. Cloud Rox Wednesday evening at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. 

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
Willmar outfielder Dylan Pigford lays down a bunt during the Stingers' season opener against the St. Cloud Rox Wednesday evening at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

March 10 was the last time that first baseman Kyle Manzardo played a baseball game for his Washington State Cougars. In that game against Gonzaga, he was 2-for-4 with a solo home run.

In his Stingers debut, Manzardo closely mirrored that performance, going 2-for-3 with a solo home run over the scoreboard in right-center that proved to be the game-winning run.

“It felt beautiful coming off the bat,” Manzardo said about the homer. “I’ve been lifting a lot of weights with the time off.”

In the fifth, Manzardo and Brennen McKenzie put Willmar ahead 2-0 after Chase Stanke legged out an infield hit. Amid the confusion, the two raced home while no one was covering home plate.

The Stingers managed nine hits compared to four for the Rox. John Bezdicek started the game for Willmar, allowing one hit and no walks with two strikeouts over four innings.

“Early in the year, pitchers are going to be ahead of the hitters,” Leyva said. “We kinda knew we’d have four pitchers out there tonight. We just had to figure out who's here and what their lineup was going to be.”

St. Cloud was able to score a pair of unearned runs. In the top of the sixth, Sam Ireland stole third, then sped home when the pickoff throw from the catcher sailed into left field. Then in the seventh, Collin Montez led off with a single and eventually scored on an infield error.

Willmar starting pitcher John Bezdicek fires to the plate during the Stingers' season opener against the St. Cloud Rox Wednesday evening at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. 

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
Willmar starting pitcher John Bezdicek fires to the plate during the Stingers' season opener against the St. Cloud Rox Wednesday evening at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Willmar sent in Jayson Newman for the save. Playing for the Stingers in 2018, Newman missed the 2019 season with Tommy John surgery and had just tossed 2-2/3 innings for California State-Northridge before the season was canceled.

With the time at home, Newman established a routine and found himself playing plenty of catch at home with his dad.

“It’s been a while,” Newman said about the last time he pitched. “I was rehabbing from surgery, then we had the short season where I had a couple appearances. I’m happy I was able to put in the work.

The Rox had the bases loaded when Tyler Finke hit a dribbler down the first-base line. In a sprint to first, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Newman was able to win the footrace, getting the force out and the save.

“I felt really good out there; I just need to work on some stuff,” Newman said. “I’m mentally and physically good. While in quarantine, I was working on getting the mental game back.”

The condensed 45-game Minnesota-Iowa pod schedule won’t give the Stingers much time to enjoy the first win. They’ll be back on the field Thursday and Friday for a pair of games at Waterloo, which won its opener Wednesday over Mankato, 9-3.

“It’s exciting,” Leyva said about the schedule. “You play each day, do your best and try to have one more run than the opponent.”

Members of the Willmar Stingers cheer on their teammates from the dugout during Wednesday's season opener against the St. Cloud Rox at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. 

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
Members of the Willmar Stingers cheer on their teammates from the dugout during Wednesday's season opener against the St. Cloud Rox at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune





Willmar 3,

St. Cloud 2

St. Cloud 000 001 010-2 4 2
Willmar 000 020 10x-3 9 3
Hitting - St. Cloud: Sam Ireland 1-2 2b bb r, Ben Norman 1-4, Collin Montez 1-3 bb r, Nick Marinconz 1-1 … Willmar: Grant Schoen 1-2, Tyler Wilber 1-4 sb, Deylan Pigford 1-4, Chase Stanke 2-4 rbi, Ryan Johnson 1-4, Kyle Manzardo 2-3 hr 2b bb r-2, Jaxon Hallmark 1-2, Brennan McKenzie 0-2 bb-2 r

Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - St. Cloud: Zane Mills 2-1-0-0-1-0, Brandon White 2-3-0-0-0-2, Nate Peterson (L) 1-2-2-0-1-1, Tyson Heaton 1.1-3-1-1-1-1, Blake Stelzer 1.2-0-0-0-0-2 … Willmar: John Bezdicek 4-1-0-0-0-2, Gavin Gorrell (W) 2-1-1-0-1-0, Landon Green 2-1-1-0-2-1, Jayson Newman (S) 1-1-0-0-1-1