Aug. 13—WILLMAR — With the Northwoods League postseason out of reach, the Willmar Stingers prepare to close their 12th season in front of its home fans in a two-game series against the Eau Claire Express starting Friday.
Both Friday and Saturday’s games against the Express are scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m.
The Stingers head into its final two-game series at Bill Taunton Stadium with a 30-36 overall record and unable to reach the playoffs. They are 13-1/2 games behind the second-place Mankato MoonDogs (43-22) and 19.5 games behind the first-place St. Cloud Rox (49-16).
However, having returned to a normalized season after a somewhat rushed 2020 season, the Stingers’ 2021 season was labeled a positive year by the owners.
“It was great to get things back to normal,” said Stingers co-owner Ryan Voz. “With last year being kind of a struggle, this year was kind of a celebration of Stingers baseball back in the community.”
Having no restrictions, or attendance limitations as seen in the 2020 season, Bill Taunton Stadium has seen nearly 32,000 spectators throughout the season, with an average of 934 fans in 34 home games.
“Our attendance was similar to, but probably down a little bit, from 2019. But that was just based off of some of the larger group outings. But overall it was very successful,” Voz said. “I just felt like we needed to bring that excitement back to the ballpark. It was long overdue for people to be able to have fun.”
In the dugout, Stingers’ manager Al Leyva discussed what it was like to be in the dugout with his players throughout the 2021 season.
“Obviously you always want to make the playoffs. But unfortunately we came up short,” Leyva said. “But the guys just did a great job of working hard and trying to do their best.”
Willmar finished the first half of the season with a 16-20 record, dropping to last place in the Great Plains West division.
In the second half of the season, the Stingers are third in the division with a 14-16 record heading into their final series of the season.
Leyva says he has seen progress in the team’s defensive development in the second half of the season, despite leading the Northwoods League in defensive errors.
“Unfortunately, we led the league in errors and I think we got a little bit better on the defensive side. Our hitting and our pitching was pretty solid,” Leyva said. “You always have cold days and hot days, but we were pretty consistent there. But our defense just really let us down throughout the year. But it did get a little bit better in the second half.”
Leyva went on to explain what it’s meant to manage the Stingers for the second straight year.
“They’re just some great guys and they got along very well together,” Leyva said, “and that’s huge that they like each other since we’re with each other for 72 games in a short amount of time.”
Heading into the 2021 season, Voz said one of his goals was watching the Stingers’ athletes improve on their overall abilities and strengthen their talents as baseball players.
Now, with the season coming to an end, he feels that has also been achieved.
“We fell short of the playoffs this year. But overall, from the experience of helping these guys get better and carrying that into the fall I felt that our coaching staff did a nice job of helping these guys become better ball players for the future,” he said.
Three Stingers’ athletes, Ryan Watson, the right-handed redshirt sophomore pitcher from Georgia State University; Jacob Webb, the senior right handed pitcher from Miami University (Ohio); and Reid Homan, the junior second baseman from the University of North Alabama, highlighted the season by being named Northwoods League All-Stars this summer.
Webb made Stingers’ history at Bill Taunton Stadium this season, having become the first pitcher to reach 100 MPH while pitching in an actual game. Webb was later drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of the 2021 MLB draft.
“We’ve never seen a guy with that kind of velocity in college that fans were able to see,” Voz said in regards to watching Webb hit 100. “It’s not every day that you see a guy (pitch) 98, 99 or even 100 mph. So that was a highlight.”
The final series is less about winning, and more about saying goodbye and playing solid baseball.
“We’re able to say goodbye to the guys, the guys are able to spend some time with their host families,” Voz said. “But it also gives the fans an opportunity to say goodbye to the players and the players can say goodbye to the fans.”
Voz says the organization will take a slight break after the series, but are still looking forward to the Stingers’ 13th season in 2022.
“We definitely are going to continue to bring that new excitement and new promotions,” he said.
“There will be new players, we have high hopes for next year to continue on with the same type of brand of baseball that we’ve had in the past.
“We definitely don’t want to become complacent. We owe it to the people in this community to continue to bring that type of baseball for next season and beyond.”