Even as a 2016 high school graduate the Kansas City Royals drafted in the 33rd round performed very well as a Royals front office representative and scout watched to evaluate him as he played for the Branson Nationals, the host Chillicothe Mudcats continued the league-wide shredding of the Nats Friday.
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Even as a 2016 high school graduate the Kansas City Royals drafted in the 33rd round performed very well as a Royals front office representative and scout watched to evaluate him as he played for the Branson Nationals, the host Chillicothe Mudcats continued the league-wide shredding of the Nats Friday. Coming from a bit behind in both 7-innings games, the Mudcats prevailed 3-2 and 9-2 to drop the Branson team to an unbelievable 2-25 record for the season. Branson plays only MINK League games. With the victories, their subsequent rainouts of the weekend, and other league results, the Mudcats elevated themselves into sole possession of second place in the MINK’s North Division standings. The Fish improved to 18-10 overall and 15-9 in league action with their fourth and fifth triumphs over the Nationals without a loss. When the dust and raindrop ripples of the holiday weekend had settled, today dawned with St. Joseph, 10-9 victor over Sedalia last night, 11⁄2 games up on the Mudcats with Sedalia two back. That makes tonight’s scheduled 7:05 first 2016 visit of 2-times-defending league champion Mustangs to Chillicothe a battle between the currently-top-2 teams in the North, although first place won’t be at stake. Expected to be the Mudcats’ starting pitcher is right-hander Josh Guerra (2-1, 3.05 ERA). St. Joseph edged the Fish 2-1 in their only prior meeting. Tonight’s game is only league game Chillicothe will play this week. Its next league action will be next Sunday at home against Joplin (see story at right). Friday night’s double-dip at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium provided a golden opportunity for the home team to take further advantage of the moribund Nationals – Chillicothe had swept a 3-games set at the Nats’ home field in early June. Although they didn’t either shortened game until the fifth inning, the Mudcats did so. In the opener, after tying the contest 2-2 on Nick Banman’s looping, 2-outs single to the opposite field in the fourth, Chillicothe scored the winning run with two outs in the fifth. Andrew Tanous worked a leadoff walk in the fifth and was bunted to second by Cade Parker. A tap to second by Cameron Haynes moved him closer to home and Alex Goodwin’s ground ball to the left side found its way through the hole to drive Tanous in. Although Chillicothe starting pitcher Ryan McCollough (2-0) had not allowed a hit or run since the second inning, Mudcats coaches Tai Mitchell and Wally Marciel opted to lift him prior to the sixth, going to another righthander, Ryne Dowling, who was unscored upon in his first handful of appearances. Dowling upheld the braintrust’s faith, quickly retiring three Nationals on routine plays. He then was replaced by another mid-June arrival, righty Tim Nelson, who also worked a quick and uneventful 1-2-3 seventh to earn his team-high second save. Branson had clipped McCollough for a run in the first inning on a sharp, 1-out, ground-ball single to right field by lefthanded-hitting center fielder Kameron Misner and a booming double to left by Kylar Robertson. Misner, drafted by the Royals last month and being observed at the game by Royals assistant general manager and Trenton native Mike Arbuckle and a scout, scored easily from first on the play and the Nats were in front. Robertson’s hit might have led to bigger things for the visitors, but a well-handled relay from left fielder Ryan McPhail to shortstop Dalton Schumer to third baseman Banman barely nipped the batter as he tried to stretch it into a triple. Thanks to uncommon pitch-catching difficulties for Robertson behind the plate, the Mudcats tied it at 1-1 in their first. Goodwin beat out a perfect bunt down the third-base line without a throw to lead off. He advanced to second on a passed ball before the next batter flied out to Misner. After a strikeout kept the runner at second, the Branson catcher had consecutive pitches go off or in and out of his mitt, allowing Goodwin first to take third and then dash home just under the pitcher’s tag attempt. Branson regained the lead in its second on consecutive singles to start the inning, a sacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly to right field, but that was all the Mudcats pitchers would yield for the duration. Starting with the bunt putout, McCollough set down 11 batters in a row before hitting a man with two outs in the fifth. That National stole second and then, with Misner on deck, strangely tried to steal third on a 3-2 pitch to Blake Hobbs. The pitch was ball four, which should have given Misner – a May graduate of Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High School, a chance to bat with two on, but Mason Goade was cut down on another very close play at third by catcher Tanous’ throw and the inning was over on a real baseball rarity – a last-pitch walk – with the score still tied 2-2. Chillicothe then came up with its second clutch, 2-outs RBI hit in as many innings and made the 1-run lead stand up. Statistically in the opener, the Mudcats’ mound trio combined to hold the punchless Branson club to four hits and two runs in seven innings. The Nats were given only that one, oddly-fated base on balls. Chillicothe managed only four hits and one walk itself off of tough-luck Branson losing pitcher Cody Widman. However, between the passed balls and Banman’s and Goodwin’s well-timed, well-placed hits, that was enough to win. Goodwin did go two for three with the early run scored and late run batted in. The first-game win bagged, the Mudcats entered the second with a chance to build a 3-games winning streak. They had won at Joplin Wednesday night before Thursday’s game had been left suspended with a 4-4 tie in the eighth inning because of lightning. Entering Friday, the Mudcats had won twice consecutively three times since an early-season 5-games win streak, but had not been able to tack on a third. This time, they did, following the first-game template until their last at-bat. Once more, Joplin tallied in the first half-inning, but missed a chance for more with a baserunning glitch. A leadoff walk and a hit batsman by Chillicothe lefthander Zach McLeod brought up Robertson, who had stung the ball in all three of his game one at-bats. This time, he didn’t hit the ball as hard, but placed it on the ground between the left-side infielders for a single. However, rather than holding the lead runner with no outs and left fielder Cade Parker charging the ball quickly, Hobbs was waved home. A perfect, 1-hop strike to catcher John Remick by McPhail just beat Hobbs there and there was one out, rather than one run. When the next batter dribbled a ball slowly nearly halfway between first and second bases, first sacker Tanous ranged way to his right to field it. With the ball hit so weakly, he had no play on the runner going from first to second and, when he looked up, learned he had no play on the batter either because his pitcher inexplicably had gone from the mound toward home plate, apparently thinking he’d need to back up a play there. With the bases now full, the mental mistake could have unraveled McLeod, but he didn’t let it. Although the next batter did plate Misner with a fly ball to center field, the lefty limited the damage – which easily could have mushroomed into several runs – to a 1-0 deficit. It still was a 1-0 game in the top of the fifth as the Mudcats twice missed out on opportunities with a runner at second base, most notably in the second inning when, having begun the inning by ranging far back into deep center field to run down Remick’s blast, Misner raced in to make a diving catch of Parker’s 1-out fly to shallow center. That outstanding catch turned into a double play as Dalton Rook, who had doubled – barely beating the play at second on his hit down the left field line – anticipated the popup would fall safely and took off for third. In the visitors’ fifth, McLeod charged toward home plate to field Hobbs’ leadoff swinging bunt near the third-base line. Either not hearing teammates’ call from the dugout to hold onto the ball or perhaps trying to heed it at the last moment while already into his throwing motion, the pitcher airmailed both the first baseman and second baseman trying to back up the play, sending Hobbs to second base on a hit and an error. After a wild pitch sent the runner to third base, Misner’s tap up the middle, which shortstop Schumer got to easily, was thrown wildly to first, letting the batter reach as Hobbs, who would have scored anyway, crossed the plate. Chillicothe’s fifth-inning defense remained very shaky when the next batter hit a grounder to short that should have been turned into a double play. However, after getting the forceout at second, pivot man Rook’s throw to first pulled Tanous off the bag. With still only one out, rather than two, the Chillicothe coaches decided to replace McLeod at that moment. Had the double play been executed, he likely would have been left in to try to complete the inning with the bases empty. Had he done so, when his teammates scored three times in the bottom half of the inning, he’d have been in line to gain credit for a team-high third win. Instead, righthanded reliever Luis Larrinaga took over and quickly set down the next two Nationals to end the inning and keep it a 2-0 game. Their still-small deficit nevertheless having been doubled, Mudcats batters got down to business in the home half of the inning. No. 8 hitter Parker, who had made a superb catch of another deep drive to left to rob Robertson off a second double in the doubleheader’s first game, began the Chillicothe rally with a looping hit to left-center with one out. Wheeling’s Zack Douglas then was inserted as a pinch-hitter and battled his way on via the only walk Branson starting pitcher Dalton Morrow issued. After a fly ball to right field was easily caught, McPhail delivered perhaps the biggest hit of the game. He spanked a 3-1 pitch past the shortstop and into center field, scoring Parker without a throw to narrow the gap to 2-1. Lefthanded-hitting Ross McWhorter was hit by a 2-2 pitch from southpaw Morrow to move the potential tying run to third and the lead run into scoring position at second. That proved to be a huge advance as, after fouling off a couple of 2-strikes pitches, the recently-hot Tanous – the club’s runs batted in leader through June with 16, earned his first two of July with a grounder through the hole into left field. Both Douglas and McPhail scored without a play and Chillicothe had gotten its fourth 2-outs, run-producing hit of the evening to go in front 3-2. Now the pitcher of record on the “up” side, Larrinaga (1-0) kept his team there in the top of the sixth and then cruised to his first decision after Chillicothe erupted for six insurance runs in the home sixth. The late salvo, which saw the first seven Mudcats who batted in the sixth reach safely – twice on Branson fielding errors, was highlighted by McWhorter’s 2-runs single that made it 8-2. The Mudcats relief pitcher then completed his winning, 22⁄3-innings stint of 1-hit ball with a scoreless seventh and Chillicothe had its second doubleheader sweep of the season, both at Branson’s expense. The Royals’ Arbuckle, sporting his sparkling 2015 world championship ring, had hoped the evening would serve two purposes for him. His grandson Austin Norris, a Trenton resident and North Central Missouri College student who played for Chillicothe’s American Legion baseball team for a couple of years earlier this decade, had hoped to pitch for the Mudcats this summer as part of his attempted comeback from April 2015 elbow surgery. However, Norris – who Mudcats coaches had hoped would be well enough to make his debut with the club as the starting pitcher in one of Friday’s games – came out of his most-recent throwing session with additional soreness/tenderness in the area of his elbow. At this point, Arbuckle indicated, it’s highly-unlikely the tall righthander – a draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies after his senior year of high school at Trenton – will be well enough to pitch any for Chillicothe this year. The Royals executive, who has more than 30 years of experience in the player development departments of the Atlanta Braves, Phillies, and Royals, did tell the C-T that he suspects bone spurs surgeons saw in his grandson’s elbow during last year’s nerve-relocation (not ligament-replacement, or “Tommy John” surgery) might be causing the current soreness and inflammation. If so, an additional procedure to remove or reduce the spurs might be needed. During his rehabilitation from last year’s surgery, Arbuckle noted, Norris’ fastball velocity had climbed from his pre-draft level of 89 miles an hour to 91. If the elbow pain can be eliminated, the now-6’7”, 200-pounds Norris could still draw interest from major league organizations, particularly if full health were to allow him to gain another few miles per hour on his pitches.