The Mankato MoonDogs’ improbable late-season surge continued Thursday night as the gutty team remained in Northwoods League playoff contention with an impressive 4-1 win over the Willmar Stingers.
The MoonDogs, who suited up a mere 19 players, closed to within 1 1/2 games of Great Plains West leader St. Cloud with a trio of games remaining for them and four for the Rox.
Before a crowd of 1,622 at Franklin Rogers Park, left-fielder Cuba Bess belted a pair of home runs and drove in three runs as Mankato (35-34, 20-13 in second half) won its sixth straight contest. Veteran left-hander Brett Newberg recorded his franchise-best 20th victory against just six defeats.
“We have a lot of high-character guys who play the game the right way,” MoonDogs’ manager Matt Wollenzin said of the turnaround over the last week. “There’s a lot of guys who want to be here and have put a ton of effort in the whole summer. Regardless of how the playoffs turn out, they just want to leave the summer on a high note individually and as a team.
“My message has been the same in: Just keep doing what you’ve been doing and prepare the right way. Then, when 7:05 comes, just go out there and play your butt off, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Newberg, a four-year regular from Austin Peay, allowed a run on three hits in the top of the first before blanking the Stingers (38-31, 16-17) over the next six frames. Newberg ended up giving up seven hits while striking out six and walking three as the ‘Dogs won for only the second time in 11 outings against the first-half division winners.
“Honestly, I think it was the fact we didn’t have a chance that kept us in it,” Newberg, who threw 110 pitches, said of the late-season success. “It was like we needed to be here for the rest of the games so make the most out of it and have some fun. Now, we’re squeaking our way back in there, and as unlikely as it might be, they still have to go up to Thunder Bay for three games.”
St. Cloud, which fell 6-3 to Rochester on Thursday, will host Rochester again today before going to Thunder Bay for a Saturday doubleheader and Sunday’s regular-season finale.
“We’re just trying to control everything which is winning each game we play here,” Newberg said. “We’re just taking it one pitch at a time. It’s crazy how many innings of pitched over my four years here. I am definitely thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given. I can’t say enough about this place, obviously, since I’ve come back four times. I am sad it’s over but I am glad it happened.”
Trailing 1-0 heading into the bottom of the first, Bess blasted a one-out solo shot over the right-center field fence before singles by second baseman Mikey Perez and right-fielder Josh Elvir set up Sean Ross’ RBI fielder’s choice. Elvir and shortstop Nick Novak ripped two hits apiece for the winners, who turned in a solid game defensively behind the ‘Dogs’ pitching staff.
“I am sure a lot of people look at Cuba Bess’ batting average, but it’s the most impressive .200 batting average I’ve ever seen,” Wollenzin said. “He’s lined two times nearly every game so it’s good to see the hits finally register for him.”
Mankato turned back a Stingers’ threat in the fifth when Perez gunned down Riley Johnson at home plate on an attempted double steal. Newberg worked a 1-2-3 sixth frame before working around Springfield native Sam Baier’s two-out single. Newberg came up the defensive gem of the game earlier in the inning, snagging a rocket up the middle off the bat of Ryan Johnson.
The MoonDogs extended their margin to 4-2 in the eighth when Novak lined a single up the middle, and Bess followed with a two-run bomb just inside the right-field foul pole. Josh Ramirez walked the first batter he faced in the top of the eighth before recording three straight outs. Jack Pilcher closed things out by fanning all three hitters he faced in the ninth.
“We’re just going out there and having fun,” Bess said. “This team has a lot of grit. We just want to go out there and play. We know the summer is coming to an end pretty fast so we want to make the best of it. This is a great experience for all of us and we just want to go out there and play good baseball.”
The two teams close out the two-game series on Friday with a 7:05 p.m. clash at The Frank.