Estrada gets it together

After a story-book start to his college baseball experience, Eddie Estrada found himself struggling, perhaps for the first time in his athletic life.

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(Tom Larson, Tribune) During a 10-game hitting streak that ended on Wednesday, Eddie Estrada was 25-for-44 (.568 average), scored 13 runs and had 19 RBIs for the Willmar Stingers. Entering Thursday’s game Estrada was hitting .373 in his first season with the Stingers.

After a story-book start to his college baseball experience, Eddie Estrada found himself struggling, perhaps for the first time in his athletic life.

The former Litchfield High School star, University of Minnesota recruit and current Willmar Stinger has veteran college coaches and NCAA Division I players as teammates to go to for help. But he also has someone in his corner who understands everything about his game.

After all these years, father still knows best.

With Estrada working his way out of a recent 0-for-21 slump, he took some time in the batting cage with his father and namesake, himself a former college, independent league player and amateur ball legend in west central Minnesota.

Now, Estrada is one of the hottest hitters going in the Northwoods League.


“After that 0-21, my dad and I had a practice at home and he corrected my hitting stance,” said Estrada, who was leading the Stingers with a .362 average heading into Thursday’s game against La Crosse.

Estrada said he was pulling off the ball, getting under it. He was barely missing solid contact but it was enough to get him out consistently. Dad saw the flaw right away, they made the correction and his son began tearing up NWL pitching.

He had a 10-game hitting streak snapped on Wednesday. Estrada was hitting .224 after the first game of a July 11 doubleheader. With his swing back on track, he hit .560 during his streak and had multiple hits in nine of the 10 games. He also had at least one RBI in a 10-game stretch.

Estrada doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify in the NWL batting race, but his .362 would be second in the entire league. He’s first on the Stingers with a .926 OPS and a .505 slugging percentage, and his .421 on-base percentage is third. He’s fourth on the team with 26 RBIs in about a third fewer at bats. His manager, Drew Saberhagen, said Estrada was putting up “video game numbers.”

“He got the opportunity and he’s really hit the ground running with it,” Saberhagen said. “Except for that small stretch where he struggled a little bit, he’s been unbelievable. I think he’ll be very well prepared for that first day of (U of M) fall ball.”

With Litchfield this spring, Estrada hit .520 with eight home runs, 40 RBIs and 40 runs scored. He was named Mr. Baseball as Minnesota’s top prep player, he earned the state’s Gatorade player of the year honor and played in the high school All-Star series.

The Stingers signed him for two years earlier this year, but they cut him loose for several games to finish Litchfield’s high school season and close out his prep career with the awards banquets and the All-Star series. Seamlessly, he made his Stingers debut 11 games into the season, going 3-for-4 with a double.

Then, reality set in and the tough step up to a new level of baseball began.


“Off-speed pitches, and it’s hard to catch up to 92 (mile-per-hour fastballs) when you only see maybe 85 in high school,” Estrada said. “People thought I was struggling but I really wasn’t. I was just getting used to the transition.”

Throughout his initiation, Saberhagen said Estrada never lost his fundamentals. Player impressed coach with small but important things, like his ability to take close pitches.

“He stays in the (strike) zone a lot,” Saberhagen said. “That kind of kid with that kind of power, he doesn’t chase outside the zone too much, which is huge. He gets into a lot of hitter’s counts and when he gets a pitch he puts a barrel on it. And he’s not pull happy.”

Estrada has had an easier adjustment to the off-field side of NWL baseball, which affords players just a handful of days off during the nearly three-month season.

“It’s definitely a minor league experience and I definitely need to get used to it if I want to further my baseball experience,” Estrada said. “It’s not as bad as people think. I love the bus rides and the guys are funny. It goes smooth. I’m a rookie around here but they treat me with respect. That’s all I can ask for. I just try to go out and prove myself every day.”

“Being on the road, apart from family,” Saberhagen said. “There’s so much that goes into this league that you’ll have to deal with at some level. He’ll be so much more prepared for the fall. This will really set him apart because he definitely has the athletic ability.”

The Stingers have a “special” team chemistry this year, Saberhagen said, which has helped them stay competitive throughout the season, even after clinching a postseason spot in the first half. They entered Thursday second in the North Division, 2-1/2 games behind St. Cloud.

That bond and the staff ensuring that no players ride the bench for long stretches are reasons why the competitive Stingers still pull for one other and get results.


“It’s like a college team,” Saberhagen said. “They all get along off the field and on the field. They all want to have a good summer and earn a spot at their college. Their coaches go back and see how they played in summer ball. That in itself is a lot to play for.”

U of M coaches are likely keeping an eye on Estrada and his fellow Gophers playing for the Stingers, outfielder Dan Motl and pitcher Tyler Hanson. All will bring back refined skills when the U opens its fall practice schedule.

Hanson is 5-1 with a 2.87 earned-run average and his 56.1 innings pitched heading into Thursday were tops on the team.

Motl is hitting .324 and, entering Thursday’s game, led the team with 61 hits and a .449 on-base percentage. His .917 OPS is second on the team and his .468 slugging percentage is third.

“They’re unbelievably talented,” Saberhagen said. “We had Tyler for about three weeks last year and were really happy that he wanted to come back. Bringing Dan back was a risk because of the draft, but it was a no-brainer. The way he’s grown up on the field, he’s such a leader for this team.”

But Motl, a senior this upcoming season, and Hanson, a junior, are established roster players. Motl started all 36 games he played last season and Hanson worked 18.2 innings out of the Gophers’ bullpen.

Estrada, primarily a prep shortstop, is going in cold and, possibly, in search of a new position. Saberhagen said the Gophers will ultimately decide but, as a college coach himself, he sees Estrada as a third baseman or corner outfielder at that level.

“I think he’s going to get a lot better defensively in the fall,” Saberhagen. “It will help him to get a lot of individual instruction and day after day of work because if it’s not shortstop it’s new to him. He’s been looking better for us at third base.”


And if it’s hitting help he needs, Estrada knows another good coach he can turn to.

“That’s been my whole life,” Estrada said. “My dad’s been right there, correcting me when I needed it. Hitting is one of the hardest things you can do in sports, so any little thing you can do can work wonders.”

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