WILLMAR — In a baseball season that’s been greatly more anticipated and appreciated than in years past, it feels like it was just yesterday that the Willmar Stingers got 2020 up and going.

Beginning their summer with a 3-2 home-opening victory against St. Cloud on July 1, the Stingers have reached the unofficial halfway point of the season with three scheduled off days in the last week of the month.

Willmar will kick off the second half of Minnesota-Iowa-pod play on the road Wednesday with a two-game, home-and-home set against Mankato at 6:35 p.m. from Franklin Rogers Park. The Stingers host the MoonDogs on Thursday, with the first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. from Bill Taunton Stadium.

In his first season as field manager, Al Leyva has guided the yellow-and-black bunch to a 14-8 record, one-half game behind division-leading Waterloo entering Tuesday. The Rox are in third place, three games back.

There have been highs and lows during the Stingers campaign to this point. The unquestioned high was a 10-game winning streak that Willmar peeled off in a two-week stretch to surge into first place. Outscoring teams by a combined margin of 82-31 in that period, the Stingers raced out to a 12-2 mark and enjoyed a 3-1/2-game cushion atop the standings.

Since then, Willmar has stumbled, dropping six of its last eight games. Three of the team’s losses were by a single run, two coming in extra innings. The last time the Stingers were on the field, they fell out of first place for the first time since July 11. The Bucks came into town and outscored Willmar by a 31-9 combined margin as part of a doubleheader Saturday.

The two teams have played seven times so far this season, with Willmar taking four contests. With 20 games remaining, the Minnesota-Iowa pod championship is shaping up to be a two-team race. Willmar and Waterloo will twice do battle before the season comes to an end on Aug. 20.

Here are some of the players that have had an impact to this point of the season and may help bring a title to Willmar.

John Bezdicek

The Plymouth native has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the rotation. In four starts, Bezdicek is 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA. Through 18 innings, he has allowed 15 hits and three walks as opposing hitters have been held to a .224 batting average. The hard-throwing left hander out of Southwest Minnesota State had his best performance in a win against Waterloo last Friday, when he relinquished a run on three hits and no walks with a season-high six strikeouts.

Jonathan Brand

Hailing from Columbus, Ga., Brand has made seven appearances out of the bullpen and leads the pitching staff with three wins. His .132 opposing batting average ranks his second in the division. Brand has given up three runs, seven hits and six walks through 15-2/3 innings of work. He has won twice against Waterloo. On July 3, he earned the victory after allowing a run on two hits and a walk through two innings. Nine days later, he captured another win against the Bucks following 3-2/3 innings of one-hit baseball.

Willmar's Tanner Brown unwinds a pitch during the second inning of a Northwoods League game against Mankato on July 21 at Bill Taunton Stadium. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar's Tanner Brown unwinds a pitch during the second inning of a Northwoods League game against Mankato on July 21 at Bill Taunton Stadium. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Tanner Brown

Brown has both started and come out of the bullpen. Regardless what way he makes an appearance, one thing has been a constant for the left-hander from Harrisburg S.D.: he sits opponents down by way of the K. Brown is fifth in the league and first in the pod with 28 strikeouts, fanning more than half of the 53 batters that he has faced. He is also second in the division with a 0.70 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). In his lone start for the Stingers against Mankato on July 21, the junior from Augustana University took a tough loss after allowing a run on two hits and one walk. He also struck out 11 MoonDogs.

Willmar's Drey Dirksen watches the ball head toward first base during the second inning of a Northwoods League game against St. Cloud on July 23 at Bill Taunton Stadium. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar's Drey Dirksen watches the ball head toward first base during the second inning of a Northwoods League game against St. Cloud on July 23 at Bill Taunton Stadium. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Drey Dirksen

Returning to his old confines, the Willmar Cardinal graduate was slow out of the gate, going hitless through his first 13 at-bats. Breaking out of the slump with a single against Rochester on July 14, Dirksen has been on a steady climb ever since. He has collected hits in each of his last five games, going 6-for-15 in that stretch. Dirksen has raised his average to .212 and his on-base percentage to .350.

Brooks Lee

Returning from knee surgery in the fall, it’s hard to believe that San Luis Obispo, Calif. native is working his way back to speed given his performance so far. Collecting a hit in each of his 17 games this summer, the infielder from Cal Poly is batting .343, good for fourth in the division. While two players on the Stingers, Ryan Johnson and Jayson Newman, each have higher batting averages, Lee tops the squad among qualified batters. He piled up a season-high three hits during a win against Mankato on July 18.

Stingers starting pitcher Brody Barnum flips the ball over to first baseman Jayson Newman during a Northwoods League game against Rochester on July 14 from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

Patrick Bernadeau /West Central Tribune
Stingers starting pitcher Brody Barnum flips the ball over to first baseman Jayson Newman during a Northwoods League game against Rochester on July 14 from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Patrick Bernadeau /West Central Tribune

Jayson Newman

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt senior from California State University-Northridge has been dynamite during his second season with the Stingers. Newman played for Willmar in 2018, but did not return last season after recovering from an arm injury in 2019. As for 2020, Newman is hitting .373 with five home runs, four doubles and 21 RBI, leading the team in each category. He also has six multi-hit games, including a four-hit showing during a win over the Bucks last Friday. Newman has also made six appearances on the mound this summer, posting a 2.70 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings.