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Willmar Stingers' main success: A full season

With the pandemic, just finishing the year in the Northwoods League has Willmar manager pleased

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Willmar manager Al Leyva discusses a call with the first base empire during Monday's Northwoods League game against Waterloo from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Willmar Stingers, like every other team in the Northwoods League, prepared for their abbreviated 2020 campaign with a level of uncertainty.

Would baseball even take place as scheduled if a number of players, coaches or team personnel contracted the virus?

Entering the last week of the season (Willmar’s final home game is 7 p.m. Wednesday against Mankato), the team has been able to operate relatively unscathed.

Prior to the season, a Stingers player tested positive for the coronavirus. In the second week of the season, Willmar had a two-game road series against Rochester canceled after several Honkers players tested positive.

Now, at the 40-game mark, Willmar manager Al Leyva is happy to reach the finish line.

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“It was actually a really, really good summer,” Leyva said. “With the Covid-19, in the beginning we thought if we could make it through July, we’d be pretty happy. And here we are, we’re going to be able to finish the season. ... It’s pretty exciting just to know that we’re going to finish a 42-game summer.”

On the field, it’s been a tale of two summers for the Stingers.

Outscoring teams by a combined margin of 82-31, the yellow-and-black squad raced out of the gates with a 12-2 record, opening up a 3-1/2-game cushion atop the Minnesota-Iowa Pod division standings.

“The first couple weeks, we were able to really put all three things together, meaning pitching, hitting and defense,” Leyva said.

Even after coming back to earth a bit, Willmar was tied with the Waterloo Bucks for the division lead with identical 18-10 records Aug. 3. Since then, the Stingers entered Tuesday with a 19-20 mark. The team has dropped 10 of their last 11 games with a run differential of minus-28.

Unable to get the clutch hit in critical situations during the slump, Willmar has dropped its last four games by two runs or less. In the addition, the Stingers have lost twice in extra innings and twice had comeback attempts end with the bases loaded.

But if there is one area that has fallen off since the start of the season, it’s been the team’s pitching.

Of the 17 league teams that have played at least 35 games, Willmar is 15th in opponent batting average (.269) and 11th in ERA (4.86).

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“When it really came down to it, we weren’t consistent enough on the hill,” Leyva said. “We might get a good start, but then our relievers didn’t seem to perform that day or we didn’t get a great start. And then, our relievers came in and did a great job. But it was already too little, too late.”

Even through the struggles, there have been some bright spots, none bigger than Jayson Newman.

Through 26 games, the redshirt senior from California State-Northridge tops the league with a .396 batting average and a 1.118 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). Within the division, he is second in doubles (9) and third in RBI (30). He is also fifth in home runs with five, two behind teammate Kyle Manzardo, who is ranked second.

Playing primarily at first base, Manzardo, from Washington State, has committed one error in 229 defensive chances.

Elsewhere, Leyva singled out the performance of Brooks Lee. Spending time at second base, third base and shortstop, the freshman from Cal Poly has recorded a base hit in 30 of 33 games played. His .331 average is fourth in the division.

Meanwhile, John Bezdicek has been the ace of the pitching staff. The left-hander from Southwest Minnesota State is 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA. Holding opponents to a .176 batting average, Bezdicek has a 33-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“Without the playoffs, it was more that we, especially me, (focus) on player development and everybody got an equal shake,” Leyva said. “Everybody played every other day; a couple of guys played two days in a row, so I really balanced it out.”

Leyva doesn’t know what players will be back in 2021, as that decision largely falls on the players’ college coaches. But after his first year as team manager, the 55-year old from Southern California hopes he returns.

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“As of right now, you never know, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Leyva said with a chuckle. “If they offer me a job next year, I would definitely say yes. But, you never know.

“I do have a grandchild right now, another one is going to be born here within the next two weeks and that’s kind of exciting. It is tough to be away from home and the grind of it. You know, I’m not getting any younger, but it is fun. There’s no other place I’d want to be than obviously with my family. But, the second-best place for me is right here on the baseball field, especially with the Willmar Stingers.”

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Willmar's Chase Stanke gives manager Al Leyva a (socially distanced) high-five after hitting a solo home run to lead off the second inning in Wednesday's Northwoods League game against Mankato at Bill Taunton Stadium. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

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