Fish at least maintain hold on third place in MINK League's North Division with 8-6 victory and 13-5 loss

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The Chillicothe Mudcats made progress in the MINK League’s North Division Thursday while spinning their wheels.
Chillicothe earned a split of its doubleheader with the league’s South Division leader and defending champion, the Ozark Generals, capturing game one 8-6 and dropping the finale 13-5. The team they are tangled with in the battle for the North’s third and final playoffs berth, the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s, did no better than also dividing a doubleheader at home against South cellar-dweller Joplin and might have done worse.
The outcome of the second game of their clash was not available at the time of the original posting of this story early Friday morning. However, the 4-2 loss by the A’s in the opener meant Chillicothe would not lose any ground to the Iowa club and still could pick up a game. Thursday’s play began with the Mudcats a half-game ahead in third place.
Whether Chillicothe’s advantage over the A’s stayed status quo or grew to 1-1/2 games, the Fish gained a slight advantage by being able to remain ahead even as two more games came off each club’s remaining schedule. Because the margin is so small, however, that advantage is fairly negligible with still two-weeks-plus left in the regular season.
After treading water Thursday, the Fish head into Friday night’s 7 o’clcok series finale against Ozark at Springfield’s Meador Park stadium still slightly above the surface overall at 19-17, but still submerged in the league at 14-17. Ozark moved to 23-13 overall and 20-12 in MINK action, 3-1/2 games ahead of South runnerup Nevada.
Sparked by Anthony Lantigua’s first-inning double that turned into a full tour of the bases, Chillicothe bolted to a 6-0 lead after 2-1/2 innings in the opener, then held on – barely.
After the South Division leader closed within 7-4 in the fifth, Lantigua’s 2-outs double and Chris Peres’ basehit to left added a bit of distance to the gap, which came in handy.
Maly, trying to go the distance in the 7-innings game, retired the leadoff batter in the Generals’ seventh, but then gave up three singles in a row to have the lead cut to three again, 8-5.
The arms-strapped Mudcats turned to Nate Wenson to try to keep Ozark at bay and preserve the desperately-needed victory. He delivered, if shakily.
A scoring fly ball made it a 2-runs game and a hit by pitch on a 1-2 offering meant the home team had the potential winning run at the plate with two outs. Wenson then missed the strike zone with his first three pitches to Sam Parrish, but battled back to fill out the count. With, after a foul, the possible tying run on the move from first with the second 3-2 pitch, Parrish hit a bouncer up the middle Wenson stretched for, but missed. However, Lantigua was the man of the moment defensively, as well, charging to glove the ball and make a rushed, on-target, on-time throw to end it.
The game-ending fielding play by the Bloomfield College senior-to-be allowed his earlier, extensive offensive contributions not to go to waste.
In the top of the first inning, Lantigua followed Ramger Iglesias’ leadoff walk and 24th stolen base with a shot up the alley in right-center field. The double plated Iglesias easily, but turned into two runs, rather than only one. The right fielder’s throw toward the cutoff men got away, so Lantigua tried for third as the third baseman dashed to fetch the ball. Firing toward third to try to get the Mudcat, the third baseman was off-target, too, and Lantigua scrambled toward home plate, making it safely before Ozark could corral the ball and get it there.
After starting a line-drive double play that ended the Generals’ first, Lantigua was at the tail end of Chillicothe’s 4-runs second.
Hits by Bryce Bisenius, who now carries the Fish’s top batting average, and Kenny Jarema and walk in-between to Tanner Baker loaded the bases in the top of the second with no outs.
Free passes to Iglesias and Lantigua forced in runs No. 3 and 4 of the game for the Mudcats before Peres’ bouncer to second made it 5-0. Iglesias then used his blazing speed to score from third while Ozark was throwing to first to retire the next man on a dropped third strike.
Handed the big bulge, Maly dodged major blows while working with many runners on base in the first six innings. The Generals settled for single runs in the second and third and two in the fifth.
Meanwhile, Baker’s opposite-field RBI double to the left-field corner in the third and his fifth outfield assist of the season as he cut down a runner trying to tag and score in the fourth, along with Peres’ run-scoring hit in the sixth, helped sustain the buffer between the clubs at a level just sufficient to produce a victory.
Lantigua finished the opener with two doubles, two runs batted in, two scored, and a base on balls. The runs he tallied were his seventh and eight in the team’s last three games.
Game two didn’t bode well for Chillicothe from the outset as, its pitching staff having shrunken by several arms over the past couple of weeks, head/pitching coach Jack Winters choice was to start righthander Dan Naif, the hurler who began the season as the first choice to be closer.
After had uneven performances through June, the stocky, submarine-style hurler had been on a good stretch the past two weeks-plus, not being charged with an earned run over a span of 10 total innings in his previous five appearances. However, two of those appearances and 5-1/3 of those innings had been in the last three days, so there likely was little expectation of getting more than a couple or three innings from him. With only seven innings of play scheduled, the hope was the Felician University senior-to-be would continue his recent effectiveness briefly and then try to piece together the last four or five innings with two or three other bullpen arms going similarly-brief stints.
When Naif (2-3) got through the opening inning fairly easily and teammate Kody Gardner launched his first home run of the summer over the wall in right-center field for a 1-0 lead with two outs in the top of the second, the early returns were favorable. As the bulk of the ballots began to roll in, however, the game turned into a Generals landslide.
Aided by the first of three Mudcats infield errors in game two, the first five Ozark batters of the second inning reached against Naif, the big blow a 3-runs double to right-center by Adam Purdy, who had started the game (according to the league’s online statistics service) with one hit and no runs driven in in 31 previous at-bats. When he got a double-play bouncer from the sixth man, he was able to limit the damage to four runs, keeping his team, if not himself, in the game.
With two outs and the bases empty in the Generals second, the 6’, 220-pound New Jerseyan charged off the mound to grab a swinging bunt to one side of the mound and fired to first base while falling. The effort netted the Fish the last out of the inning, but either the throw or the impact of the fall left Naif clearly damaged and unable to return for the third, even if Winters would have wanted him to.
Perhaps inspired by Naif’s sacrifice in making the semi-emergency start and then being injured, Chillicothe immediately closed the gap on the home team.
Kenny Jarema drew his team-high 30th walk of the season – tying last year’s Dalton Schumer for the second-largest walks total in a season in Mudcats history – and Iglesias reached on an infield hit to put two on with no outs.
They were pushed up by Lantigua’s bunt and Chris Peres launched a high fly to deep left, a blow which figured to serve as a sacrifice fly. While Peres does receive credit for the “sac fly” and run batted in, the would-be catch was botched by Purdy, allowing Peres to reach second base safely, while Iglesias, who – like Jarema ahead of him – had tagged up, could only advance to third as Jarema scored.
With an unexpected chance to turn it into a much-bigger inning, Chillicothe didn’t get the big blow it needed from its Nos. 4 and 5 batters. Team RBI leader Justin Blasinski did drive Iglesias in with a groundout to second, making it a 4-3 game, but Bryce Bisenius bouncer to short stranded Peres at third and kept Ozark ahead by one.
Naif’s surprising replacement in the Generals’ third was none other than Wenson, returning to the hill after a 60- to 75-minutes break following his wrapping up game one.
The John Carroll University righty crisply worked a 1-2-3 third, giving the Chillicothe offense a chance to go back to work on Ozark starter Sam Belisle-Springer after scoring against him each of the two preceding frames.
The Generals pitcher had found a different gear, however, after escaping the third still in front. He also retired the side 1-2-3 and went on to blank Chillicothe in the fifth and sixth also to end his night and earn the eventually-easy win.
The nightcap began turning ugly for Chillicothe in the bottom of the fourth as Wenson tried to provide a second successful inning.
Interrupted only by a sacrifice bunt, seven of the first eight Generals to stand in against the Farmington Hills, Mich., resident got on – five with hits, including Nate Dechaine’s outburst-capping 2-runs double, one by walk, and one by error.
Wenson, like Naif, gamely “took one” for the team. He not only completed the 10-batters fourth, but went back out for the fifth in what had become a 10-3 game. After retiring the first man in the fifth, another error, two walks, and a run-scoring single, he finally was lifted.
New pitcher Jerald Johnston immediately was greeted by a 2-runs double by hard-hitting Ryan Curtis, who was two for four in each game with four total RBI, completing the Ozark scoring. Johnston then set down six of the last seven men he faced. Curtis now has driven in a league-high 40 runs.
As they did the night before at Sedalia, the Fish produced some scoring in their last at-bat to prevent a double-digits defeat.
An error put Jarema aboard to open the Chillicothe seventh and Iglesias poked a double to left-center. Lantigua’s bouncer to short scored Jarema as the first out was recorded on the batter and consecutive singles by Peres and Blasinski plated Iglesias.
Statistically on the evening Thursday, Lantigua swung the best Chillicothe stick, going three for five with three RBI. Peres had three “ribbies” also.
Blasinski’s two game-2 runs batted in raised his season total to 34, second to Curtis among MINK League players. The University of Illinois-Springfield-bound outfielder current total is the most by any Mudcat since Zach Esquerra’s 40 in 2011 and gives him an outside-shot – with a big finish – a chance to challenge Travis Dunlap’s 2003 team record of 45. Esquerra is second on the list with Dominic D’Anna’s 37 third.
Game one Thursday saw Mudcat metronome Dawsen Bacho’s 13-games hitting streak – during which he’d logged one hit in each contest – end as he failed to hit safely in four at-bats. His jag finishes tied with the 13-gamers of ex-Fish Matty Johnson (2008) and the late Steve Martin (2003) for sixth-longest in team history. It was the team’s longest since 2011.
Wenson’s first save in game one was the team’s ninth of the summer, three shy of the its single-season record.