LaGrange, Ill., outfielder from Creighton ties team record with homers off Ozark in second, third, fifth innings, drives in six as Fish capture another "rubber" game on road
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Right on schedule – it happens every eight years, Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats outfielder Jack Grace had an amazing night of power hitting to pace his team to another series win Saturday (June 15).
The LaGrange, Ill., resident slugged three home runs over the Meador Park fences, tying a team single-game record, as, for the second time in their southwest Missouri swing, the Fish captured a 3-games series after losing the series opener big.
The Creighton University player’s roundtrippers and six runs batted in led the way to a 17-9 Chillicothe victory which raised the fast-starting 2019 team’s records to 9-4 both overall and in the MINK League.
Grace became the third Mudcat ever with three “jacks” in a game. Ironically, all three times, it has happened either in Springfield or at a Springfield-based team’s home field.
In 2003, the most-potent school of Fish to date connected on a team-record nine home runs in a road game against a non-league foe, the Springfield Slashers. Three of the power pokes came off the bat of 2002-03 Mudcats standout Travis Dunlap.
Eight years later, visiting the Ozark Generals in a game played at Parsons Memorial Stadium at Crane, outfielder/designated-hitter Zach Esquerra muscled up three times in a Chillicothe win en route to eventually matching 2003 Mudcat Jason Clark’s single-season home run mark of nine.
With Grace’s three mashed “taters” Saturday and another by Brandan Settles, the 2019 Chillicothe team boosted its total to 10 through 13 games. At that pace, with a 41-games schedule planned (assuming the season-opening rainout against Bancroft, Iowa, is not able to be rescheduled or replaced), this year’s team would surpass the season standard of 28 4-baggers set by that 2003 squad.
After a late-night trip back to Chillicothe, the team will have Sunday off before traveling to Sedalia Monday night for an eighth-consecutive road game against the league’s defending champion, which carried a 7-2 record into its Sunday night game at Ozark.
By grace of Grace, Chillicothe was able to complete on Saturday a replication of their results in a 3-games set at Joplin earlier in the week.
Joplin’s Outlaws fileted the Fish 20-10 in seven innings in the opener of that series, only to have Chillicothe take the next two games and, thus, the series.
At Springfield, Ozark handed the Mudcats an even-more lopsided defeat – 12-1 – in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader and series opener, only to see the guests gain a split of the twinbill by a 3-1 count and then paste the Generals Saturday.
The series finale’s outcome was in no real doubt after Chillicothe marched 13 batters to home plate against starting and losing pitcher Bryce Slavens in the top of the third inning and scored nine of them.
Those nine tallies added to the singleton Grace supplied in the second with his 1-outs, opposite-field shot over the boards in right-center field. Armed with the 10-0 advantage, Mudcats starting pitcher Brock Pettit and five relievers never let Ozark closer than seven runs the rest of the way.
The huge Chillicothe third actually began with an out made by Tate Wargo, but it would be 11 more batters before Slavens would get another.
A walk to Chet Merritt and Logan Eickhoff’s double put two men in scoring position for the team’s runs batted in leader, Nolan Metcalf. Metcalf drove home both with a hit to left, boosting his RBi total to 15.
Following a single by Blaine Ray, Grace again powered up to the power alley, but this time pulled the ball over the wall in left-center – a 3-runs blast which tied him for the 2019 team lead in home runs and doubled the Fish lead to 6-0.
While often a long ball will tend to take some of the air out of a big inning, Slavens had no such good fortune.
Brady Welch followed Ray’s second circuit clout with a double into the left-field corner and, after a wild pitch, Kole Ficken pulled a grounder inside the third-base bag for a run-scoring single. After No. 9 batter Brandan Settles served a double down the right-field line, Wargo made it 8-consecutive Chillicothe hits with a double beyond the right fielder’s reach. The fifth Mudcats extra-base hit of the inning made it 9-0 and, with help, they weren’t quite through piling on.
An error by the Generals third baseman let a 10th batter in a row get aboard before Eickhoff flied out to center. However, even that out did damage, scoring Wargo from third for a double-digits spread.
Ozark pierced Pettit for a run in the bottom of the third, but Chillicothe soon eclipsed that against a new Generals hurler. Sam Tiller replaced the starting lefthander and immediately allowed the first three men he faced to reach, leading to a 4-runs inning.
Greeted by Ray’s triple, Tiller made sure Grace didn’t make it three homers in three plate appearances, walking him unintentionally. That just let others get in on the fun as Welch singled Ray home, Ficken followed a wild pitch with a sacrifice fly, and the hard-swinging Settles connected for his first home run of the summer. The 2-runs shot left the Fish in front 14-1 after 3-1/2 innings.
After Pettit gave up three runs in the home fourth, Eickhoff’s leadoff double in the fifth and, after two fly outs, Grace’s third home run of the game moved him into the team lead for the season and reestablished a 12-runs margin.
Rather than risk a potentially-pooped Pettit sustaining further damage and Ozark possibly slashing the lead again, Mudcats head/pitching coach Caleb Bounds opted to reach into his bullpen, likely hoping to hold the Generals where they were and, with a few more runs, potentially only have to play seven innings while still getting Pettit credit for the win.
Parts one and two of that blueprint worked all right as Garrett West (1-1) limited the hosts to a single run in the fifth and Collin Chalmers posted a zero in the sixth. However, Kale Harris wasn’t as fortunate in the seventh.
Needing three outs before Ozark scored three times to end the game on the 10-runs-lead rule, the funky-motion southpaw fanned the first man he faced. However, he hit the next and then gave up three hits in a row to make it 16-6.
A fly ball was caught to bring Chillicothe within an out of an early getaway on “getaway day,” but Tanner Maskey bought his team extra time with a 2-runs double that required at least one more inning.
While that was a disappointment in one respect, it did create an opening for Grace, who had been retired for the first time on the night on a groundout in the top of the sixth, to perhaps get one more plate appearance. When five Mudcats went to the plate in the top of the eighth, but only one run scored – on Merritt’s fielder’s choice that plated Ficken, the 17-8 score meant the game would go the full nine innings and Grace would be the third batter of that ninth.
Following a scoreless inning of work by Jack McNellis in the home eighth, an unusually-dramatic top of the ninth in a 9-runs game unfolded.
Ozark’s third pitcher of the game, Andrew Paten, who had worked the eighth, quickly surrendered a leadoff double to Metcalf. When Ray popped up, Grace stepped in.
Wasting no time trying to size the new pitcher up, Grace hacked at the first pitch he saw and sent it into the air on the right side. Unfortunately for him, it had relatively-little distance, settling into the leather of the second baseman.
The anticlimactic bottom of the ninth saw pitcher Tyler Ingram, who has struggled in most of his previous outings, get a good taste in his mouth for the long ride home.Although he walked the second batter, he got the next man to bounce into a game-ending double play, capping the Mudcats’ ninth triumph in their last 12 games. The team’s 9-4 record is one of the Mudcats’ best ever through 13 games in their 18-seasons history.
Statistically Saturday, Grace’s six runs batted in not only were a 2019 single-game high for the team, but were only one shy of the team record, also set in 2003, by the late Steve Martin in a July 7 game against Nevada.
His huge night left him 10 for 21 with three home runs, two doubles, 10 RBI, and only two strikeouts for last week, likely making him a strong candidate for league player of the week.
Besides Grace’s great numbers, the Fish finished with a 17-11 hits advantage, including three by Ray and two each from Settles, Welch, Eickhoff, and Metcalf.