The Chillicothe Mudcats' 2012 season was a case study in perspective.
In the team's 11th season of play, Eric Peterson's 33-21 squad posted more victories than any of its predecessors, topping the twice-achieved former team record of 32 by posting two triumphs in its regional-tournament bid to advance to the National Baseball Congress World Series. It also played played three more times than any other Mudcats team and five more times than the 2008 and 2009 clubs which netted 32 wins.
It advanced to the championship round of its regional tournament for only the second time in 10 tries, but fell short of the World Series berth when its two losses ended up being by eight runs each.
After beginning the season with one of the largest rosters in team history – 27 players – and a whopping 17 pitchers, the Fish played the regional with only eight pitchers (one of whom was limited by injury) and a mere six position players who spent more than 10 days of the regular season with them.
They were good enough to play scintillating 18-4 ball the final three weeks of the regular season, including a team-record-equaling 9-game winning streak, yet also flawed enough to be a doom-sealing 11-15 in MINK League competition well past the halfway point of the league slate and to have both a 4-game losing streak in the opening week of the season and a costly 5-of-6 slump in the middle of the league season.
The Mudcats finished with the second-best record in the league to go with their second-place finish in the regional. Neither accomplished each season's primary on-field objective – a trip to the NBC World Series.
Understandably, first-year head coach Peterson sees the positives in sharper focus.
"I thought it was a great season," he commented to the C-T Saturday evening.
"It started out slow, but I kind of expected that with the roster we'd put together and the guys that hadn't played in the spring. I knew it was going to take them a little bit to get ready, to start hitting. I knew we were going to be good on the mound and that would at least keep us close to .500 until we started hitting.
"I was very pleased with the season and with the effort of the guys. They did a great job. They did everything I asked of them."
After yo-yoing both ways past the .500 mark through the first four weeks of the season – never more than a game above or three below, another tweak of the batting order by Peterson finally clicked all the tumblers into place and the Mudcats swung open the door to prosperity wide.
"Adding Taylor Johnson (as the leadoff hitter) really helped," Peterson reflected. "It transformed our lineup into something that would work. It gave us the top three or four hitters every night that we knew were going to be (productive).
"Ricky Martinez and others turned it on late and that really helped."
With the shift of Johnson, who'd been with the team less than a week, to the top spot in the lineup and Tyler Duplantis from the middle of the order up to No. 2 ahead of the team's best hitter to that point, Ryan Busch, Peterson created a nucleus which became radioactive to opponents. When their seasons ended, each was hitting over .350.
Their enormous success allowed fellow Mudcats batting before or after the trio to get better pitches to hit and begin having more success, which allowed everyone to perform with more relaxed confidence.
With the pitching staff, already doing a solid and, at times, spectacular job, knowing the offense was going to, on average, put five or more runs on the scoreboard more often than not, its members grew more confident and assertive.
Supported by, anecdotally, perhaps the most-reliable Chillicothe defense ever in the organization's 11-years history, in a stretch of 17 games, Chillicothe hurlers incredibly allowed more than three runs only once (and that game was won) as the team went on a scorching 14-3 tear which included the record-tying winning streak.
"You've got to like the 9-game winning streak. We basically were an out away from setting a franchise record," Peterson recalled, referring to the 1-0 loss at St. Joseph that halted the streak. "That's pretty special."
In the 17 contests, opponents were limited to no runs or one nearly half the time (eight games), including four of the team's six shutouts of the season. Over the course of the 17 games, foes produced only 32 total runs.
Not surprisingly, with that lengthy stretch of excellence, the Mudcats finished with not only the MINK League's best earned run average for the season (counting league games only) at 3.16. A struggling showing in the regional tournament kept them from breaking the team ERA record of 2.99, set in 2009.
"They set the franchise record in wins and led the league in pitching and we were third in hitting. I'm not going to take anything away from these guys. They filled all the expectations I had."
Talking of the streak and the eventual 33-wins total, he stressed, "That has nothing to do with me. That's all those guys buying in to what we were trying to do and getting better every day and playing hard."
Based on how things traditionally had transitioned from the regular season into regional-tournament play and given the sizzling 18-4 finish to the regular season, Mudcats fans and supporters had every reason to feel confident their rampaging home nine was primed and ready to power through the regional tournament and get to the World Series for a third time in four years.
However, in a departure from the prior 10 years, more than a third of the players opted to terminate their time with the team either in the last five days of the regular season or prior to the regional tourney. That included the tone-setting trio of Busch, Duplantis, and Johnson, as well as productive pitchers Jamie Bittle and Lee Harrison and outfielder/reliever Ryan Brinley.
Busch and Duplantis acted upon opportunities to gain additional guaranteed experience by joining teams in a wood-bat league which would continue playing through mid-August, but the others just went home.
Peterson came up with three solid additions to supplement the tourney roster of position players and the offense, although spotty at times, generated an average of eight runs a game, the lack of pitching depth and an unexpectedly-poor start from one of the top two starters of the regular season proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.
"I can't really say there was one thing that I was disappointed about. Even at the end, we played as hard as we could with the guys that we had."
With a furious finishing kick to their regular season, the 2012 Chillicothe Mudcats collectively produced a new high-water mark in total victories for the 11-year-old organization, highlighting a series of new records to which individuals and groups also laid claim during a long, hot, dry summer.
In addition to collectively playing (54) and winning (33) more games than any prior Mudcats squad and tying record for consecutive victories (nine), this year's offense powered its way to the single-game scoring record (21 runs), largest winning margin (18 runs), most hits in a season (510), and the season scoring high (296), while its bullpen secured more saves than any previous group of relievers.
Jon Rand and Ryan Brinley (three each), Harrison and Anderson (two each), and Aaron Hyder and Rusty Edwards (one each) combined to produce the record 12 saves, surpassing the previous team high of 10 set in 2004 and matched in 2009 and '10.
Offensively, Ryan Busch and Tyler Duplantis both equaled the records for both most hits in a game (five) and most consecutive hits (six). Duplantis matched TS Reed's 2008 feat of having two double-digit consecutive-games hitting streaks – a 10-gamer and later a 12-game skein.
When the final tallies were in, as a team, the Mudcats matched up well with anyone in the MINK League, even champion St. Joseph, which is in the winners'-bracket finals of the National Baseball Congress World Series and is assured of a top-6 finish, after going 4-0 thus far in the tourney at Wichita, Kan. Add in their "rubber-game" victory in the Heartland Regional postseason tournament and the Fish took four of seven from the Ponies.
Chillicothe's final league mark of 23-19 was second to the champion Mustangs by three games and a game better than South Division titlist Sedalia.
The Fish split their 6-game league sets with St. Joseph, Sedalia, and World Series top-8 finisher Nevada, while winning four of six from Joplin, Clarinda, and Omaha Diamond Spirit. Only Ozark got the better of Chillicothe during the regular season, holding a 4-2 advantage.
Outside of the league, the Mudcats went 8-0 during the regular season before splitting four games in the regional tourney.
Statistically, during league competition, Chillicothe led the league in pitching, whether going by earned run average (3.16, 0.15 lower than St. Joseph's), total runs allowed (159, 34 less than runnerup St. Joe), or opponents' batting average (.250, just ahead of the Mustangs' .251).
It had the league season's single-largest single-game scoring output with their team-record 21 in a July 10 win over Nevada, tied for the most hits in a game with 20 in their 17-3 win at Omaha July 2. Their six doubles in that game and three triples in the July 10 Nevada rout were league bests, as were their 28 total base against Omaha and their four sacrifice flies in a June 28 win over Sedalia.
Chillicothe had the league's best won-lost record in games where it scored first, going a stunning 15-2 and the best road record in league play, 11-10.
"Having a consistent group of guys that played together all year long, that's what's going to make you good," head coach Eric Peterson reflected for the C-T Saturday.
A key component of the Mudcats' pitching success this summer was its defense.
According to numbers generated by the computerized scorekeeping/statistical program to which the MINK League subscribes, the Fish had the MINK's best team fielding percentage (.971). They are listed as committing only 43 errors in 42 games, substantially ahead of everyone except St. Joseph's 51.
Examination of the league-season fielding stats generated by the computer application shows some discrepancies which might call into question the dependability of specific figures shown on the league's statistics website. However, any inconsistencies or inaccuracies would figure to be randomly-, but generally evenly-, distributed through all teams' and individual statistics. As such, they would not significantly skew general or specific comparisons between teams or individuals.
Even with some specific numbers being in question, first-hand observation of the Mudcats in nearly all of their league home games would anecdotally seem to generate the same conclusion as the available statistics – that this year's Chillicothe defense was the best in the league.
Additionally, although statistics are not available for comparison purposes, this year's team also seemed to pass the "eye test" of rating as equal to or better than any prior Mudcats squad.
On the mound, Steve Adkins, who came within four outs of not only the Mudcats' first-ever no-hitter, but also a perfect game when he shut out the Omaha (Neb.) Diamond Spirit in the opening game of a doubleheader in his first start of the year, finished with a team-best six wins. That's one shy of tying the team record. He lost only once while also leading the team in innings pitched and strikeouts.
In addition to Adkins' 2-hit shutout win, lefthander Cole Isom – the team's second-winningest hurler with five – also tossed a 2-hit complete game against league champion St. Joseph and fast-finishing Jamie Bittle, another southpaw, had a distance-going 3-hitter against Ozark. However, each of the latter two took the loss in those stellar efforts, each losing a 1-0 decision.
Bittle won each of his last three starts – all in-league – with an ERA of only 1.25.
While used mostly as a right fielder, hard-throwing right-hander Brinley did make nine pitching appearances, covering 16 innings, and never yielded a run. He is the only Fish ever to throw at least 10 innings in a season and not allow a run. He won his only start in his final appearance after earning the three saves.
Harrison was this year' most-oft-used pitcher, even though he worked in a modest 13 games. Four of those came in succession, thought to be the first time ever a Mudcats pitcher had thrown in that many consecutive contests. Working exclusively from the bullpen, he earned four victories in five decisions in addition to chipping in two saves. That ranked him among the league's top 10 relievers, something returnee Rand also did despite not being with the club until July.
Surprising used only nine times, righty reliever Aaron Hyder posted an excellent 1.11 ERA across 241⁄3 innings.
When Isom and Adkins both gave up more runs than normal in their regional tournament starts, lefthanded starter Jeremy Perron quietly ended up as the team's ERA leader with a 2.30 mark, even though he gave up more than a hit per inning.
Among Mudcats hitters, Busch, Duplantis, and Taylor Johnson – especially after Peterson shifted Johnson to leadoff and Duplantis to No. 2 in the lineup in front of Busch – produced "Murderers' Row"-type numbers with performances comparable to the production numbers of the St. Louis Cardinals' so-called "MV3" trio of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds from 2003-05.
Busch had a torrid June, being over .400 most of the month before cooling.
He still finished tops on the team in batting average (.370), hits (60), runs batted in (27), and strikeouts-per-at-bat ratio (1:8.5), was second in stolen bases (13), doubles, and triples.
In only league action, he finished second in batting average (also .370), second in slugging percentage (.479), third in hits (54) and total bases (70), and fourth in runs batted in (25). He batted .385 in 39 at-bats with runners in scoring position and was two for two with the bases full.
Duplantis, who played excellent defense at third base, committing a mere three errors in 72 chances (according to the league stats website), developed into an increasingly-key cog in the Mudcats' attack with his steadiness at the dish.
Fueled by that consistency, his batting average was on a steady climb after the first couple of weeks of play and it ended up at an impressive .351. He tied for the team lead in walks received (19) and was second in runs scored, hits, and doubles.
In league games, his .353 batting mark was fourth-best in the loop and his .439 on-base percentage was No. 1, as was his June 26-July 17 streak of 16-straight league games in which he hit safely. His .380 batting average with runners aboard topped the team and he was good when they were in scoring position – hitting .361 overall with someone at second or third and .333 in that situation with two outs.
Like Busch and utilityman Mitch Huckabay, Duplantis was especially adept at trying to get rallies started as the first batter in an inning. Huckabay and Busch each smoked the ball at a .500 clip when opening an inning and Duplantis was close behind at .476.
Despite not becoming a Mudcat until 21 games into the campaign and also missing the regional tournament, Johnson still finished with a stunning 19 extra-base hits (15 doubles, two triples, two home runs), easily the most on the club, encompassing all games.
His league total of 15 "power" hits was tied for fourth-most and within six of the leader, eventual pro signee Jordan Guida of St. Joseph, even though Johnson barely played half of Chillicothe's league games.
With two home runs, he shared the team lead with Isaac Smith. The first of those came leading off the bottom of the first inning against Nevada July 9, only the second game-starting roundtripper in Mudcats history. His 15 doubles were only two shy of the team record shared by Tom Huntingford and Cory Ford.
His .367 overall batting average was second only to Busch and his 85 percent success rate on 14 base-theft attempts was the club's best rate.
Had he had the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for the listing, his .337 batting average in league play would have put him in the top six along with Busch and Duplantis.
Situationally, Johnson, for all his success when occupying the No. 1 spot in the batting order, surprisingly batted a very respectable, but less gaudy, .351 when leading off any inning. He was a far-bigger weapon when he came up with men aboard.
With anyone on base, his average was the same .351 as it was when he started a frame, but if the runners were in scoring position, his mark soared to a team-high .417. He also went a team-best three for five (.600) with men at second or third or both with two outs.
Beyond the team's indisputable leading trio of hitters, Smith, who lost his regular job as center fielder in late June before getting it back when Brinley left in the closing days of the regular season and Kevin Barker shifted to right field, almost surreptitiously ended up with numerous team highs in season totals.
The Kentuckian was No. 1 in runs scored (36), stolen bases (18), steal attempts (22), at-bats (166), and games played (48) and he shared the top rung in home runs (two, with Johnson) and bases on balls (19, with Duplantis). He also finished third in RBIs.
He hit a very good .333 with runners in scoring position and two outs and whacked the ball at an excellent .382 clip any time he batted with men at second or third.
On the "down" side, no one struck out more than Smith with his 46 whiffs. His 38 in league games were second-most among all MINK players.
Barker, another late-June arrival, overcame a slow first couple of weeks to finish with a .314 batting average. His three triples in league competition matched a couple of others for most in the league.
A couple of others who saw limited time early or in midseason also were well above .300 in batting average with Busch, Duplantis, Johnson, and Barker.
Alexander Peña, a belated, interim signee just after the season began and who left to pursue professional playing options, hit .405 in his 10 games. Andy Westfall, an unheralded, emergency mid-June pickup, hit .353 in 12 contests before having his season ended by a concussion in early July.
Several season-long team members used late-season pushes to finish just below .300, including Smith (.295), second-year Mudcat Levi Grassley (.94), and Ricky Martinez (.292).
Grassley, the Cameron resident who was the nearest thing to a local player on this year's Mudcats squad, finished second on the team to Busch with 25 overall runs batted in. He hit his best in non-league action, including the regional tournament, boasting a .366 average outside the loop.
"I knew it was going to take a little time for these guys to get going, hitting-wise," Peterson said in reflection, "but, when they did, they were a special group and really turned it on."
Four Mudcats – Busch, Johnson, Adkins, and Chase Anderson – were recognized as MINK League players or pitchers of the week either alone or sharing the honor with someone.