Kirkpatrick, Nair, Gussman hold Ozark Generals down in 3-1 victory in Sunday doubleheader nightcap, halting 4-games losing streak
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
The Chillicothe Mudcats got back on the winning track Sunday night, but only after seeing the losing streak they began the day on extend to four games in a row.
Hosting MINK League South Division leader Ozark in a doubleheader, the Mudcats came up just short with a late rally in the opener, falling 9-8, before scoring twice in the bottom of the sixth inning of the nightcap to prevail 3-1.
Strong pitching by starter Parker Kirkpatrick and relievers Dan Naif and Austin Gussman in the finale was rewarded by a tiebreaking, run-scoring triple by Anthony Lantigua in game two.
By snapping the losing streak, Chillicothe (12-8, 8-8) put itself in a more-positive frame of mind for Monday’s 7:05 home meeting with North Division-leading St. Joseph.
Jack Winters, Mudcats head/pitching coach, plans to put righthander Zack Mathes (2-1) on the hill to face the Mustangs (19-6, 14-6). St. Joseph comes in having won eight of its last nine and threatening to run away with the North.
Sunday’s Chillicothe streak-snapper featured a season-best by Kirkpatrick, who did not walk a batter until he had two outs in the fourth inning and was facing his 14th opponent. The longest such string at the start of game by a Mudcats hurler previously this season was in the opener when Tyler Hansen walked the 13th man he pitched to with one out in the fourth.
Kirkpatrick didn’t get rewarded with a winning decision for his strong outing – one run on five hits over five innings with only two bases on balls, but his ability to match Generals starter Steven Kemp over that stretch made it possible for the sixth-inning flurry the home team came up with in the sixth to become the difference.
Following a perfect inning by Naif (2-1) in the top of the sixth, Justin Blasinski accepted the last of Kemp’s three bases on balls with one out in the bottom half.
Lantigua then blasted a high drive to deep left-center field, a shot that carried about 375 feet before landing. Because it was hit so high, Blasinski momentarily held up about halfway between first and second base, so that, if could see it would be caught by the center fielder, he might be able to tag up and advance into scoring position with two outs.
That hesitation left the lead runner having to kick it into high gear once the ball landed near the fence in order to come around to score ahead of the relay. Able to run all out from the start, Lantigua was close behind Blasinski as they headed toward third base, allowing him to come to roost there.
After an infield out on which Lantigua nearly wandered too far off third, but scrambled back as the play then was made to first, Dawsen Bacho lined a single to left-center for the welcome insurance tally.
Although he gave up a pair of singles with one out in the top of the seventh, Gussman was able to set the Generals down without a run for his team-high fourth save.
In game one Sunday, Generals reliever Chase Smith entered in the bottom of the seventh and final scheduled inning with the bases loaded, no outs, and a 9-7 lead to protect and did so.
A run-scoring groundout to first by Ramger Iglesias narrowed the gap to one run and advanced the potential tying and winning runs to third and second, respectively, but the Ozark righthander got a popup to shortstop by Josh Urps and, after walking No. 3 hitter Chris Peres to reload the bags, got Justin Blasinski on a routine fly ball to center field on the first pitch to end it.
The near-miss came after the Mudcats had wasted an early 4-2 lead, then hung in and rallied late after the South leader had established a 9-4 lead with a 7-runs fifth.
Chillicothe parlayed a single, two walks, and a mishandled bunt into two runs in the bottom of the sixth to close within 9-6.
The Generals’ third pitcher, J.D. Barr, who had bailed winner Bo McSpadden out in the sixth, immediately fell into hot water in the seventh.
A sideways hop on Tanner Baker’s chopper to shortstop opening the Mudcats’ seventh caused the shortstop to have to adjust just enough that the batter barely beat the throw at first.
Barr then walked Cris Cabral and Christian Hoplock to fill the bases. A 5-pitches free pass to No. 9 batter Kenny Jarema forced in one run, put the tying run at second with no outs, and ended Barr’s stint. However, Smith bailed him out to save the win.
Chillicothe had two early leads, the first after merely three pitches.
Following the 1-2-3 top of the first worked by Isaac Rubendall (0-2), Iglesias pulled a hit down the left-field line off Braden Scott and cruised into second with a double. Josh Urps bounced the next pitch through the middle, scoring the swift runner easily for a 1-0 lead.
Ozark answered with four hits in the second, but only two runs before leaving the bases full.
Chillicothe quickly put its first two men in the second on as Cabral doubled to right-center and Christian Hoplock walked, but then needed – and received – some 2-outs productivity.
With men at second and third, Urps again singled to center, tying the game 2-2. Peres then sliced a double into the right-field corner to drive in two and the hosts were up again, 4-2.
Neither side did much for a couple of innings until Ozark rocked Rubendall – gently at first – in the fifth.
A leadoff hit batsman was followed by the righthander’s third walk – a relatively-low number by the team’s 2017 standards to date.
A fly to right notched the first out, but a run-scoring double down the right-field line by Pete Sitorous and a hit to left by DH Curtis Hynes knotted the score and knocked Rubendall, who had started the inning qualified for the win and exited potentially facing the loss.
The Mudcats pitcher went on the hook for the eventual loss when, with men at first and third, the first pitch reliever Jerald Johnston delivered skimmed along the dirt just behind home plate and ticked off the catcher’s mitt to the backstop for a run-scoring wild pitch.
Idle for several days as the team struggled through several lopsided losses, sidewheeling righthander Johnston was not nearly as sharp as he had been his previous several appearances and the Generals capitalized to promote their lead to five runs.
The first two batters he faced stroked run-scoring singles. Then, after a walk and a sacrifice, a triple up the alley in right-center field plated two more runs and ended Johnston’s short stint. Although Trevor Maly managed to staunch the flow of runs there, the Mudcats were in a 5-runs hole out of which they eventually couldn’t quite crawl all the way.
Statistically in the doubleheader, both Iglesias and Baker had three hits in six at-bats. Leadoff man Iglesias scored a first-inning run in each game – using a single, a steal, advancement to third on a low throw by the catcher, and Josh Urps’ bouncer to second to give Chillicothe a 1-0 lead in the second game, too.
With neither Naif nor Gussman issuing an “Annie Oakley” in the nightcap, Chillicothe finished with a season-low two walks in the 7-innings contest.
“We’re doing everything in our power to help these kids get better and we’ll start to see that pay dividends in the next couple of weeks,” Winters said of the emphasis he’s putting on the pitchers – especially the starters – throwing strikes and the extra work the hurlers are doing to alleviate the flaw.
“We made it really clear that the walks and the leadoff walks and 2-out walks are just unacceptable,” he stressed.
Although they sustained the loss in game one, Maly’s 2-1/3 scoreless innings kept the Mudcats from having a fourth-consecutive game in which the foe scored at least 10 runs. The 3-games streak it halted was a first in team history, as had been the string of 3-straight losses by seven runs or more that the 1-run defeat snapped.
“Baseball’s streaky,” Winters shrugged, hinting his team’s fortunes could turn around to a positive direction in the snap of a finger.