Take home MINK League pair from Jefferson City 7-1 and 5-4, thanks to error-aided rally in sixth and Renegades' basepath misadventures in last inning of nightcap
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Essentially starting the second half of their college-level, summer baseball season Friday (June 30) as they began a stretch of seven home-field games in their next outings with a doubleheader with the Jefferson City Renegades, the 2017 Chillicothe Mudcats made a positive statement as to whether they’re more the team which went went 10-2 the first two weeks of June or the one which had lost nine of its previous 12.
Receiving a startlingly-sharp start from Tyler Hansen in the twinbill opener to prevail 7-1, the Mudcats then revisited their early-season, comeback persona to erase a 4-1 deficit in claiming the finale, 5-4.
Jack Winters, Chillicothe’s head coach who, in the aftermath of Chillicothe’s 5-plus-inches of total rainfall the two previous nights, put in nearly four hours of midday manual labor to get the “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium field in playable condition after arriving back in town well past midnight following the club’s Thursday night loss at Nevada, was not only happy with the result, but justifiably proud of the resolve the players he has brought together for the summer showed.
“Very easily, if the players weren’t a tight-knit group, if we didn’t have good team chemistry, these guys could easily just become selfish players and worry about themselves and not worry so much about wins and losses,” he reflected after Friday’s action, “but these guys were frustrated with the way things have gone. There was actually a players-only meeting during pre-game today.”
The evening came very close to being an unsatisfying wash, but, reflecting the frustration the coach cited, the Mudcats would not let it.
When the Renegades – first-year members of the MINK League in which the Mudcats have played since their 2002 inception – countered a Chillicothe run in the bottom of the fourth inning of the second 7-innings game of the night with four in the fifth, the chance to shrug and succumb was there. However, there were no takers.
It began with de facto closer Austin Gussman accepting the request of his head/pitching coach to enter in that fifth inning in a non-save situation, even though his six saves already are only two short of the team record for a season.
Entering with the bases full and eventual victory still at least eight outs away, when he usually is limited to getting three to five outs in order to be available more often, Gussman gutted it out, even after allowing a pair of singles to score all three runners he inherited from tiring starter Isaac Rubendall.
The Mudcats scratched out a run in the bottom of the fifth to get within two and blunt some of the Jefferson City momentum. Gussman then shrugged off a hard-hit shot off a leg to get through the visitors’ sixth and give his teammates a chance to gnaw further into the deficit.
The Chillicothe half of the sixth began with a routine out, but, facing righthanded reliever Grant Wood rather than effective lefty starter Austin Sachse, lefthanded-hitting Tanner Baker, who impacted both games with his hitting and his right-field defense, bounced a hit the opposite way into left field to rouse the troops.
Christian Hoplock, another lefty batter, followed suit, except he pulled his hit through the right side, as the Fish put the potential tying runs on base.
A forceout at third meant the home team would have to do any socring in the inning with two outs, a challenge it met.
Kenny Jarema, another of the many Chillicothe lefthanded hitters, spanked a line drive toward the shortstop’s position, but also toward Baker as he took his lead from second base. Baker hesitated before breaking toward third, hoping to block the shortstop’s vision a bit and make it more difficult to glove the coming one-hopper.
Whether it was that distraction or the ball’s higher hop than might have been anticipated, the Jefferson City infielder had the ball bounce over his left shoulder and on into left-center field, rather than field or block it. When that happened, Baker was able to score easily from second as the ball rolled to a virtual stop in the sodden outfield grass, where there still were many patches of standing water. Because of that, Hoplock was able to go first to third easily and, when the center fielder had the ball slip from his bare hand when he first tried to pick it up, Jarema – after hesitating halfway between first and second – went for second and, with an elusive slide, was barely safe. He’d soon do it again, 180 feet away.
“One thing teams have done against us is capitalize on mistakes,” Winters reflected on one aspect of his team’s recent slump. “… Jefferson City floated us a few freebies … and we capitalized on it.
“There’s definitely an art to playing defense at Shaffer Park, knowing just how the ball plays in the infield, how the loose sand in the infield factors in, the lights in the outfield,” he amplified. “We have some home-field advantage, in the sense we know how our ballpark plays and (for) Jefferson City – it was their first time here.”
As Ramger Iglesias, the slightly-built, fleet-footed, Mudcats leadoff hitter, stepped into the lefthanded batter’s box, the tying run was at third and go-ahead run at second, making even a potential infield hit likely to tie the game and an outfield single possibly able to push the Fish in front. Despite that, the Jefferson City outfielders played relatively deep – especially in left, Iglesias’ non-pull side – and it would cost them.
Even when the count went to 1-2, putting the batter in “protect” and “make-contact” mode, the left fielder stayed quite deep – too deep to come anywhere close to catching Iglesias’ looping, opposite-field poke on the next pitch. As the ball fell to earth, Hoplock crossed home with the tying run and Jarema steamed toward home behind him. The extra distance the left fielder had to come in to field the hit was just enough for the Chillicothe baserunner to be close enough to home plate as the on-target arrived to stab the plate with his hand just ahead of the tag.
In part thanks to the error which let the heady Jarema reach second and the ill-considered depth of the left fielder, the Mudcats had erased the 3-runs deficit to lead, 5-4.
Winters noted Jarema’s and, earlier in the game, Chris Peres’ alert baserunning that led to Peres scoring the game’s first run, were as much a result of their training in “baseball smarts” as raw physical ability.
“Kenny and Chris play for really good (college) coaches, coaches who have been around a long time and have a winning history and do a really good job of grooming players to be smart baseball players,” the head coach notes.
Having regained the lead going to the final scheduled inning didn’t end the drama of the second game.
Going to the hill again after an unaccustomed second spell on the bench while his teammates batted, Gussman walked the leadoff batter on a full count. A pitch or two later, he spiked a delivery in the dirt just behind home plate, forcing catcher Cris Cabral to use his chest protector to block it. When the ball bounced out in front of the plate perhaps five feet, the Renegades baserunner headed for second. Cabral quickly pounced on the ball, but his rushed throw toward second went wide to the right-field side of the bag and past both Iglesias covering the base and Jarema backing it up. That allowed Jeff City’s Avery Jennings to easily move on to third base, putting the tying run only 90 feet from squaring things.
Going to another 3-2 count, Gussman battled through a couple of fouled-off 2-strikes pitches to finally whiff that batter on a high fastball for the first out with Jennings still at third.
Following the first pitch to the next batter, Cabral and the entire Chillicothe infield gathered with Gussman on the mound, likely reminding each other of how to deal with multiple possible scenarios, including a squeeze bunt. As they did, Jefferson City head/third-base coach Mike DeMilla chatted with his runner and hitter.
The next pitch was taken, leaving the count at 1-1, but, as Gussman – from the stretch – sent the 1-1 pitch homeward, Jennings took off for home plate on presumably a suicide-squeeze play. However, righthanded batter Mike Million – although he squared around as if to bunt – did not offer at the high, away pitch. While it became ball two, it also was an easy pitch for Cabral to catch and move across the plate to await and tag the oncoming runner for an easy second out which emptied the bases.
As if that busted bunt play wasn’t odd enough, Million then popped up the 2-1 pitch about 10 feet into the outfield on the right side, only to have the retreating Jarema and oncoming Baker manage to let it fall between them for a hit. However, the batter – perhaps anticipating a catch that would be the last out – rounded first base and was about a third of the way to second when the ball fell safely. That left Million no choice but to continue on toward second, where he was easily cut down when Baker picked up the ball and threw it about 70 feet to Iglesias.
Somehow, despite having two batters reach safely, Chillicothe and Gussman (3-0) had gotten three out from the minimum three batters and completed the doubleheader sweep.
Of the unplanned, extended stint for his closer Gussman, the Chillicothe head coach, said the team had come back to lead, “I just made the decision of sticking with him.”
That decision, he admitted, meant he would not have the lefty available for Saturday’s or Sunday’s games. as a health protector.
Tyler Hansen, Chillicothe’s game one starting pitcher, provided game 2 starter Rubendall a standard nearly-impossible to match.
The lefthander from Grand Canyon University in Arizona fully-flashed the form Jack Winters, the Mudcats head coach who recruited and signed him for this summer from across the country in New Jersey, had cited he could display.
The Snowflake, Ariz., resident amazingly threw only 59 pitches in a 7-innings, route-going performance. Facing only two batters of the minimum and retiring the side in order four times, he allowed merely four hits and, after a month-long battle with his control, issued only on base on balls. He struck out three.
“That’s the Tyler Hansen that we’ve anticipated all summer,” Winters acknowledged. “We’ve stuck with him, waiting for him to kind of find his grove and he certainly found it tonight.”
The only dent the Renegades made in him – while playing as the home team in their first-ever game in Chillicothe – was in the third inning, right after the Mudcats had taken a 2-0 lead in the top half.
Hansen’s only free pass of the night put the leadoff man on and an opposite-field single down the right-field line moved that man to third with no outs. On a sharp grounder, Chillicothe traded a run to get two outs, rolling the double play as the man at third crossed the plate.
The Mudcats balanced that and more in the next half-inning with three hits and three runs, taking solid command of the game.
Tanner Baker led off the top of the fourth with a hit to right-center and Devonte Washington walked. Josh Urps bunted them along and Ramger Iglesias, who had walked and scored on Chris Peres’ infield hit in the third, beat out a tap wide of first as Baker scored.
After Iglesias swiped his second bag of the game on the first pitch to Kody Gardner, Gardner zipped a 2-runs single into center field for a 5-1 lead.
With one swing of Justin Blasinski’s bat in the first pitch of the fifth, the Mudcats added on. The lefthanded-hitting left fielder jacked a high drive over the fence and just under the scoreboard behind it in deepest right field for a 6-1 margin.
A leadoff double by Gardner and Blasinski’s 1-out single in the seventh closed the scoring.
The pair of Friday victories raised Chillicothe’s MINK League record back to .500 at 11-11, while Jefferson City slid to 9-15. Overall, the Mudcats moved to 15-11 and the Renegades to 12-15.
The teams will meet again in a single game Saturday evening, but, in a switch from the previously-publicized game time, the action will start at 6:05 p.m. That is to allow local fans the opportunity to attend the game and then make it to the community’s annual “Freedom Fest” and fireworks show.
Statistically on the night, beyond Hansen’s spectacular numbers, Gussman’s win puts him in a tie for the third-most in the league while also topped the league with his six saves.
Speaking of league leaders, Baker’s throw which produced the final out of the night was his second assist of the game and league-lead-sharing fourth of the year. A teammate of Hansen’s at Grand Canyon, where one-time Mudcats infielder Gregg Wallis is a coach, Baker had gunned down a runner trying to tag and score on a shallow fly ball in the first game, too.
Winters lauds Baker’s ability to contribute in all phases of the game – he currently is batting over .430 with runners in scoring position – and off the field, as well.
“Tanner provides great skill in the outfield with what he can do as a defender, what he can do with his arm, and what he can do at the plate,” the coach relates.
“We also use him as a guy we can communicate through to other players. … Tanner provides us with a lot more than just an outstanding outfielder.”
Friday’s only “downer” for Chillicothe was the season-ending injury recurrence sustained during the first game by infielder Josh Urps.
Sliding into second base head-first in the sixth inning, he reinjured the left shoulder he’d undergone surgery on for labrum damage late 2016. His left arm in a sling, the sophomore-to-be told the C-T before leaving the stadium after the second game that he does not intend to undergo further surgery, but hopes to be able to strengthen the surrounding shoulder and back muscles enough to stabilize the joint enough to play in Sacramento State’s 2018 spring season.
With Urps’ loss and second baseman Anthony Lantigua, who took an 89 miles per hour (according to Winters fastball off his left kneecap during the mid-week series at Nevada, still not ready to return to action, Peres will have to play third base – as he did in both games Friday – again Saturday against Jefferson City. Previously, the plan had been to have Peres be the Mudcats’ starting pitcher in the contest, a job which now will fall to righthander Trevor Maly (2-0).
Winters said he hopes to have Lantigua back by Monday’s game at St. Joseph.