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Northwoods League: After early struggles, Stingers rolling near halfway mark

The Stingers have the league's fourth-best record at 18-12

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The Willmar Stingers' Brett Bateman watches the ball drop after a bunt attempt during a Northwoods League game against the St. Cloud Rox on Monday, June 13, 2022 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — After opening up their 2022 campaign with a 1-5 record, the Willmar Stingers have flipped the switch and are one of seven teams in the Northwoods League to hold a record better than .500.

The Stingers have 16 position players this season. First-year field manager Freddy Smith mentioned that he is not used to having so many at his disposal, but that it is "a good problem to have" as it promotes a competition-rich environment.

Smith knows most players will see playing time in four or five games, but the ones that carry themselves the right way and do things the right way will see game action six to seven days a week.

"Everyone's treated equally here, but the guys that are doing things the right way and producing the most, they're going to get the most at-bats," Smith said. "That's how it has been since day one."

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Willmar Stingers shortstop Aidan Byrne throws across the diamond to first base during a Northwoods League game against the Minnesota Mud Puppies on Monday, June 6, 2022 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Since their season-opening loss to Rochester on May 30, the Stingers lineup has changed dramatically and it will continue to fluctuate throughout every game as the season progresses.

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Only three players — Brett Bateman, Aidan Byrne and Drey Dirksen — have played in at least 25 games for the Stingers this season.

Joey Walls, a junior from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, played in his first game with the Stingers on June 8 and has found himself in the lineup in all but one game since.

Walls is tied for the third-most doubles and third-best slugging percentage (.598) in the Northwoods League. He and Dirksen have created more than 19 runs each for Willmar.

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The Willmar Stingers' Drey Dirksen, left, chats with first-base coach Michael Newstrom after hitting for a single during a Northwoods League game against the St. Cloud Rox on Sunday, June 19, 2022 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

"Good things happen to [Walls] during the game because he lets the game come to him," Smith said. "He's a pitcher's nightmare."

Smith is not going to determine a "best lineup." He wants to keep his lineups balanced for every game, given the team plays almost every day.

The balanced lineup approach by Smith has been working.

Thirty games into the season, the Stingers have the fourth-best record in the Northwoods League with an 18-12 record, trailing Great Plains West Division-leading rival St. Cloud Rox (23-6) by 5.5 games.

"It really speaks volumes on how our guys have transitioned to showing up to the field, expecting to win, rather than showing up and hoping to win," Smith said. "The guys have really learned through some early season struggles and it has made them better."

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Willmar has earned six two-game series sweeps this season and has only been swept once since June 9, recording a 15-6 record over that span.

"We're really starting to figure out what our team is made of," Smith said. "We're seeing guys establish themselves in their roles, especially in our pitching staff. It's been a great thing to see."

Jack Habeck, a redshirt sophomore at St. Cloud State University, has been lights out for the Stingers.

Habeck is tied for first in the Northwoods League with four wins and holds the league's fourth-best ERA (1.54). He has the fourth-most innings pitched in the Northwoods with 35.

Known as the "Jack Habeck special" to Smith, the 21-year-old uses his ability to throw strikes on the first pitch of at-bats to defeat his opponents. His first-pitch-strike percentage is 61.9%, which ranks No. 12 in the Northwoods league.

"He's a guy who's just a winner and he leads our staff," Smith said. "His ability to just hang a zero after we score a run is huge. ... I think it gives the rest of our team even more confidence."

Dylan Matela, a redshirt sophomore at Georgia State University, has impressed Smith so far this season alongside Habeck.

Matela is a relief pitcher, who can eat innings, and limit the damage when entering a game situation with inherited runners. He has 24 strikeouts and a 1.20 ERA, totaling 15 innings in six appearances with two wins and two saves.

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"He's been our best guy at the back end," Smith said. "His ability to not give up inherited runners and be able to come in the next inning and shut the door for us has been huge."

Nearing the halfway mark of the season, the Stingers have turned the page after a slow start. They are 6-2 in their last eight games with two series sweeps.

After their four-game series against Bismarck (10-20), who the Stingers have yet to play this season, Willmar will reach the halfway point of the regular season.

"I think our best days are ahead of us," Smith said. "The guys are really starting to take their routines in stride and it's been good to see the consistency."

More by Michael Lyne:
The Stingers will make their first appearance in the playoffs since 2019
Willmar falls 12-9, but Drey Dirksen tallies his 100th career hit.
The Saints edge Richmond 4-3 to complete a good weekend in the playoffs at Meire Grove.
Raymond gets a lift from vets, youngsters to beat Atwater 10-6 in the Region 4C tournament.

Michael Lyne joined the West Central Tribune as a sports reporter in June 2022, following his graduation from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where he graduated with a bachelors degree in journalism and a minor degree in Spanish studies.

You may reach Michael at mlyne@wctrib.com, or by calling (320) 214-4345.
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