WILLMAR — Just four starts into the summer for the Willmar Stingers, Ryan Watson is showing what kind of pitcher he’s capable of being.
A sophomore from Georgia State, the right-hander saw time as both a starter and reliever in 2021, going 4-4 with two saves. He finished with a 6.64 earned run average and 59 strikeouts with 21 walks in 59-2/3 innings.
But through the first month of the Northwoods League season, Watson has been the Stingers’ ace with a 3-0 record and a 1.00 ERA with 31 strikeouts and one walk over 27 innings pitched.
After a spring of success and struggles for the 18-37 Panthers, Watson has shined this summer.
“I’m able to know that I’ve gotten these great hitters out in the Northwoods League and that I can translate that to college,” Watson said about his early-season success. “Keeping that confidence is the biggest thing.”
Last summer, Watson was slated to play in the Cape Cod League before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to cancel the 2020 season. This summer, the chance to play opened up again, with teams in the Northwoods League inquiring about the Sugar Hill, Georgia native.
An old connection helped guide Watson to Willmar. Georgia State head baseball coach Brad Stromdahl played collegiately at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato and Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall. In 2006, Stromdahl coached with the now-defunct Alexandria Beetles. Stingers co-owner Ryan Voz was the Beetles’ general manager at that time.
“I know Voz and the staff pretty well from our old days,” said Stromdahl, who has nine of his players in the Northwoods League this summer. Along with Watson, redshirt freshman pitcher Dylan Matela came to Willmar from Georgia State.
Stromdahl continued, “Being able to send Ryan (Watson) to an organization that’s going to take care of him, and for him to be able to perform and pitch the way he has and put up the numbers, it’s really wonderful to contribute to the Willmar community and the Stinger organization from a distance.”
Each of Watson’s four starts have gone at least six innings. And even in his toughest start of the year — a no-decision on June 13 against Mankato (6 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 4 SO) — Watson impressed the Willmar coaches with his tenacity.
“He had about 80 percent of his stuff, but he was fighting through it,” said Stingers manager Al Leyva. “That’s what you want and that’s the guy that’s going to make it at the next level.
“He got better as the game went on and I’ve seen that in all his starts.”
His second start against the MoonDogs on June 21 proved to be a benchmark start in his pitching career. Over seven innings, Watson struck out 13 while allowing just three hits and zero walks in a 2-0 victory.
“I actually think that was my career high; that was a big game for me,” said Watson, who added that he didn’t start pitching until his senior year at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia. “I think (my high-school best) was probably 10 or 11.”
That night, Levya saw a pitcher in full command of the strike zone and his repertoire of pitches: fastball-changeup-slider-slurve.
“The biggest thing in that game was getting ahead of the batters early on and keeping my pitch count pretty low,” Watson said. “Later in the game, I found all my pitches and that always helps. I haven’t had all four pitches in a while.”
Leyva added, “He could do pretty much anything with the baseball that night.”
During the college season, Stromdahl saw Watson excel against one of the country’s best teams. On Feb. 26, Watson got the win over then-No. 3 Vanderbilt, striking out seven with one run on four hits and two walks in five innings. Currently, Vanderbilt is one of the four teams left in contention for the College World Series.
“He took control of that game and executed our game plan really well,” Stromdahl said. “Kind of like he was against Mankato the other night, he was able to execute all his pitches for a strike and he competed on the mound. He got a lot of swings and misses.”
While happy to help out the Panthers as a starter or reliever, Watson hopes his summer success can help keep him at the top of Georgia State’s starting rotation while drawing some attention from pro scouts.
“I think what I’ve done so far as a starter has shown the coaches I can do it for six or seven innings instead of what I was doing in college with five or six,” Watson said. “Consistency is the big thing with college baseball, and finding that this summer has helped me so far.”
Stromdahl said of Watson’s ability as both a starter and reliever, “Ultimately, I think that prepares him for professional baseball when he gets that opportunity. And hopefully he’ll have an opportunity this year to go to professional baseball. It helps, too, playing in these crowds. I think he’s ready to take that next step.”