Trenton Bluejays used 3-runs eighth Friday to stun top-seeded Chillicothe 7-6 in first game of Missouri Districts 1-2 Tournament
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
TRENTON, Mo. — The Chillicothe Cardinals senior (AAA) American Legion baseball team’s path to the program’s first trip to the Missouri Zone 1 Tournament in a decade surprisingly turned significantly-more challenging Friday.
Seemingly on their way to a hard-contested triumph over the host Trenton Post 31 Bluejays in the opening round of the Districts 1-2 Tournament, a disputed umpire’s call in the top of the eighth inning threw off their focus, leading to a 3-runs Bluejays rally and a 7-6 Trenton win.
At the time of the posting of this story early Saturday morning, no information had been forwarded to the C-T or posted on the team’s online statistics/communications site as to who the Cardinals – the district’s regular-season leader and the tourney’s top seed – would meet in the losers’-bracket semifinal game at 3 p.m. later in the day. It would be the loser of Friday’s second game between Kirksville/Moberly’s Sixers and the Green City Express.
Chillicothe (14-6-1) will need to win twice Saturday afternoon and evening to stay alive and reach Sunday’s championship round. If it does survive that long, it would have to win twice Sunday to capture the tourney crown and qualify for zone action next week.
Friday’s game between the top and bottom seeds was a struggle for Chillicothe from the start.
It fell behind a club it had defeated in each of their three regular-season meetings, including by a 10-0 count in five innings on the same Burleigh Grimes Field in Trenton’s Eastside Park exactly two weeks earlier.
Playing as the visitors on their home field, the Bluejays quickly jumped ahead on starting pitcher Koby Linder’s double to left, a wild pitch, and a single to center by Hamilton’s Quinn Brown.
Another single by TC East, also of Hamilton, left men at first and third with no outs against Cardinals starting pitcher Carson Wilkerson. However, instead of falling farther behind, Chillicothe and Wilkerson slipped the noose as shortstop Gunnar Leach made a leaping catch of a line drive and threw to first to double East off. A popup then stranded Brown and kept the score at 1-0.
Linder walked the first two Chillicothe batters of the game, but then settled down to retire the next six and keep it a 1-0 contest.
In the Trenton third, Brown’s 1-out walk and East’s double to right-center created a new threat, one which Kaden Brown cashed in on this time with a swinging-bunt single down the third-base line. Once more, however, Wilkerson and Chillicothe managed to stop the flow of blood there.
The Cardinals’ second time through the batting order in the bottom of the third saw them bid to take control, but derail themselves.
Konner Sewell’s leadoff single from the No. 9 spot in the lineup was followed by a wild pickoff throw from the catcher. With one out, Drew Toedebusch singled to center and, after nearly stopping at third as the Trenton center fielder came in to glove the ball, K. Sewell was able to score – barely – after the ball briefly eluded the outfielder.
Having taken second on the throw home trying to get K. Sewell, Toedebusch scored without a throw on Tanner Lent’s opposite-way ground-ball hit to right, tying the game at 2-2. Lent immediately stole second, allowing him to also dash home without a throw when Jordan Miller singled down the line in left.
Ahead 3-2 with only one out and still with the middle of its order batting, Chillicothe had a chance to burst the seams on the game, but self-destructed.
On Tristen Sewell’s single to left-center, Miller easily reached third and an ill-advised throw there let the batter advance to second. Perhaps one hit away from a 5-2 lead and a chance to keep adding on and perhaps kayo Linder, the Cardinals instead ran themselves out of the inning as, on a bouncer back to the mound, the trail runner – thinking the man ahead of him would be breaking for the plate – headed for his next base. The lead man, however, stayed put as Linder turned and threw to first for the second out. The first baseman then held the ball to make sure Miller would not break for the plate before throwing the ball to second in time to get T. Sewell returning there for the third out.
Trenton used the momentum it gained from its unusual double play and sloppy Chillicothe defense to regain the lead immediately.
A leadoff single and throwing error put the tying run at second. A wild pitch sent him to third and another wild pitch on a swinging third strike resulted in the batter getting on while the lead runner stayed at third.
Nick Hartley then put down a picture-perfect safety-squeeze bunt to the first-base side of the mound, tying the game and moving the other runner into scoring position with one out. His sacrifice paid off doubly when Q. Brown grounded a 2-outs single into left to put Trenton back in front, 4-3, after 3-1/2 innings.
A line-drive double play in the Chillicothe half of the fourth threatened to keep the Cardinals down, but they refused to let it.
K. Sewell drew a 2-outs walk and again barely was safe at the plate when he came all the way around to score on Leach’s gap-plugging double to deep left-center.. K. Sewell apparently was able to touch the plate with his hand as he literally tumbled over the catcher as the ball arrived home.
With the game back to even-steven at 4-4 after four, Chillicothe head coach Ty Stillwell and pitching coach Aaron Norris, a Trenton native, opted to make a pitching change. The call went to tall righthander Ben Jones, the starting right fielder.
Jones seemed to be on his way to making the switch look like genius when he breezed through the first seven Bluejays he faced and completed three scoreless innings with only one hit and one baserunner allowed. Fanning three along the way, he seemed to have a firm grip on his control and Trenton’s bats.
When he also ripped a 2-outs, 2-runs double down the left-field line in the fifth that put Chillicothe up 6-4, Jones was in position to be the winning pitcher in relief and have the game-winning hit when his and the Cardinals’ fortunes turned suddenly.
The first Trenton batter in the eighth, pinch-hitter Timothy Heintz, hit a 3-bouncer right to shortstop Leach, whose throw to first, while a bit to the outfield side of the bag, was easily within the reach of 6’4” first baseman Jordan Miller, who already had bailed out two other infielders’ low throws with short-hop pickups.
As Miller stretched his left arm out to spear the throw a step or two before Heintz’s arrival, he seemed to make a clean and clear catch of it. As he then swung his arm and glove back toward his body to meet his right hand in order to start throwing the ball around the infield, the ball fell to the ground and the field umpire nearby ruled Miller had never controlled the ball. He signaled Heintz to be safe to the displeasure of the Chillicothe team and fans and, after acceding to Stillwell’s request to consult with the home plate umpire, the call stood.
The unexpected and upsetting call and the short delay which resulted seemed to distract the Cardinals and their hurler.
Previously with no problem firing strikes, Jones quickly issued consecutive walks on eight or nine total pitches, filling the bases with no outs and putting the tying run in scoring position and lead run aboard. All three would score.
Following the second walk, Stillwell walked to the mound to change pitchers, summoning Drew Toedebusch from left field while Jones returned to his original spot in right and K. Sewell headed from right back to left, where he’d begun the game.
As that was happening, the Trenton head coach protested to the home plate umpire that bringing a player from a different defensive position to pitch constituted a “double switch” and could not be legally done under the American League baseball rules American Legion baseball generally goes by (Legion baseball has some additional rules of its own it utilizes, mostly in regard to innings-pitched restrictions) because Stillwell had not notified the umpire of his intentions before going to the mound.
After a delay of several minutes, the umpires – apparently with Trenton formally protesting it (a protest which became moot anyway when the Bluejays won) – rightly allowed the changes to be made and Toedebusch finally took his warmup pitches and play resumed.
The new hurler was not able to get locked in on the strike zone immediately, however, forcing home a run with a free pass to the first batter he faced and narrowing Chillicothe’s lead to 6-5, still with no outs.
The next Trenton batter hit a fly ball to medium-shallow center field where strong-armed T. Sewell made the easy play and fired home quickly, influencing the runner at third to stay put.
Linder then rolled a relatively-soft grounder to the right side on which Chillicothe might have been able to force the runner at the plate, but instead tried to turn into a double play via second base. The out was made there, but a return throw to first would have been pointless as the batter was nearly to the bag, meaning Trenton had scored again and was tied, 6-6.
With runners at first and third, an obvious possibility – even though East, who had two previous hits, was up – was that the Bluejays might attempt either a steal of second or a true double-steal with the man at first taking off on the pitch and the runner at third starting for the plate if the catcher released a throw toward second. However, Cardinals catcher Chase Minnick had thrown out a would-be basestealer by a wide margin in the third inning.
On the first pitch, Trenton took the chance and went for the first option. Despite the inherent risk of needing an on-target and in-time throw and catch, Chillicothe tried to throw Linder out. While the throw might have been in time for the out, it was not caught and rolled into short center field, letting the runner from third trot home unmolested to give the tourney hosts the lead again in the top of the eighth.
As it turned out, had Chillicothe conceded the steal of second and not taken the chance on the ball getting away, Toedebusch was able to strike out the batter a few pitches later, an out which would have stranded both runners and kept the game tied.
With two at-bats still coming to it, Chillicothe had time to pull out a harrowing, but valuable, win, but, despite coming close, couldn’t do so.
Heintz, having pinch-hit, stayed in and took over on the mound for Trenton.
He got the first batter he faced in the eighth, but then surrendered a clean single to K. Sewell, his second hit and third time on base. A force-play grounder a pitch or two later erased him and left Leach at first with two outs.
After Toedebusch walked, Leach and he stole third and second, respectively, without a throw, giving No. 3 hitter Lent a chance to tie the game or put the Cardinals back in front with a hit. He didn’t get a real chance to do that, however, as all four pitches to him by Heintz were out of the strike zone, putting him on first and loading the bases.
Rather than get rattled, Heintz quickly pumped two called strikes in to Miller, who then popped the 0-2 pitch into short left field where the shortstop easily caught it. That ended the inning with Trenton still up by one.
In its last chance, Chillicothe did not mount any threat. Two easy fly balls were caught before Heintz got a swinging strike three to end it and send the fourth-seeded Bluejays – the 2016 district champs – on to Saturday’s noon winners’-bracket final.