Tuesday, July 9, 12-3 home win over Nevada cuts 'magic number' for making league playoffs for first time since 2011 to one
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — On the heels of their first-ever losing season, the 2019 Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats college-level, summer-baseball team continued to fashion one of the club’s best-ever campaigns Tuesday (July 9), officially moving to the cusp of their first postseason appearance in eight years.
Answering the visiting Nevada Griffons’ pair of first-inning runs with four unearned markers of their own in the bottom half, the Mudcats tacked on three more deserved runs in the second and – picking up their first home run at home in 2019 on Nolan Metcalf’s eighth-inning solo blast to left – sailed on to a 12-3 MINK League triumph which cut to one their “magic number” for securing a league-playoffs berth.
With nearly two weeks of games yet to play, the next Chillicothe victory or Clarinda (Iowa) A’s loss will clinch for the Fish one of the league’s three North Division playoffs spots, not that this year’s Chillicothe team – now playing .667 ball both in the league (18-9) and overall (20-10) – wants to settle for just qualifying for postseason play.
With its ninth triumph in the last 11 outings and fourth in a row, it inched back within 1-1/2 games of North-leading St. Joseph (19-7 MINK), which was idle Tuesday, and stayed 2-1/2 ahead of third-place Sedalia, which won at home over Clarinda.
The Mudcats will host Nevada (9-17, 9-16 MINK) again at 7:05 Wednesday night and Thursday – Wednesday’s action at Trenton’s Burleigh Grimes Field and Thursday’s back in Chillicothe, where Tuesday’s triumph pushed the Fish over .500 (7-6) for the season.
Righthander Jake Gill (2-0) is ticketed by second-year Chillicothe head coach Caleb Bounds to get the ball as the starting pitcher for Wednesday’s action at Trenton. Righty Brock Pettit (3-0) is lined up for Thursday’s 3-games-series finale at “Chuck” Haney Field in “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium.
Tuesday’s series opener saw Nevada seize a first-inning lead on Eli Harrison’s 2-outs, ground-ball single into right field, but that was all the scoring the Griffons would do against starting and winning pitcher Cristhian Cardona (2-1) until the sixth, by which time the Mudcats had rung up nine runs.
The Chillicothe assault began immediately against Griffons starter and loser Walker Johnson.
The righthander quickly got ahead on the count against pesky Mudcats leadoff batter Tate Wargo, but could not find a way to get a third strike past him or get him to hit the ball to one of the Nevada fielders. Instead, a marathon, 10-pitches plate appearance ended with the Chillicothe batter watching ball four and heading to first base.
Even after Wargo was cut down at third trying to advance when a low pitch bounced away from the Nevada catcher, Chillicothe was undeterred. Fellow infielder Marcus Gonzalez, who had singled Wargo to second and moved up a base as the preceding runner was being retired, advanced to third on a wild pitch and stayed there as Logan Eickhoff reached on a fielding error. A walk to Metcalf then loaded the bases with one out.
Blaine Ray accepted a 5-pitches base on balls – W. Johnson’s third walk among the first five batters – to force Gonzalez home and narrow the score to 2-1.
The Griffons hurler then made the pitch he wanted to Jack Grace, inducing a ground ball right at the shortstop for what likely should have become an inning-ending and lead-preserving double play. However, the shortstop juggled the ball in his leather ever so briefly, prompting him to rush his throw to second base. It went wide of the second baseman crossing the base for the potential pivot and rolled into short right-center field. By the time it was tracked down, Metcalf had followed Eickhoff home without a play and Chillicothe was on top, 3-2.
Another free pass loaded the bases again and Brady Welch smacked a sharp single to center field to tack on another run. The big inning looked like it might go huge when righthanded-hitting No. 9 batter Hunter Johnson slashed a line drive which initially looked like it might sail over the first baseman’s head and down the right-field line for extra bases and at least two more runs. However, Nevada’s first sacker reached high to spear the liner and dashed forward to tag Welch out before he could get back to the bag, ending the inning with a double play.
When Cardona followed with a 1-2-3 second, the Mudcats’ momentum was still in force and they immediately renewed their assault of the Nevada hurler.
Once more Wargo led off with a walk – this time on four pitches, not 10. After he stole second, Gonzalez sharply skimmed his second of three hits through the right side of the infield to bring up the MINK League’s leading hitter, in terms of batting average, Eickhoff.
About a .421 hitter as he stepped him, the North Central Missouri College player – just this week cited as a National Junior College Athletics Association second-team Academic All-American for having a 2018-19 school year grade-point average between 3.80 and 3.89 – followed Gonzalez’s lead. He grounded a hit through a big hole between the first and second basemen, driving home Wargo for a 5-2 lead.
The second of Metcalf’s 3-straight bases on ball loaded the bases with no outs, setting the stage for a couple of similar, rare plays that prevented the home team from blowing a hole in the game early.
Ray hit a pop fly toward shallow center field which the retreating second baseman came up about a stride short of reaching. Because of the chance he might make the catch, Gonzalez tagged up at third, hoping to score after such a snag. However, that meant he had the full 90 feet to travel when the ball fell untouched, allowing smooth-fielding Nevada center fielder Brayland Skinner to glove the ball on the first bounce and fire a strike to home plate from about 190 feet, cutting down Gonzalez for what went into the scorebook as an unusual 8-2 forceout.
Grace bumped the Chillicothe lead to 6-2 with a single to right-center which still left the sacks full with one out, setting the table for another unlikely play by Skinner.
Like Ray, Chet Merritt lofted a softly-struck ball toward the outfield – this time over the shortstop’s head to left-center, but it looked like it might hang in the air long enough for the onrushing center fielder to make the catch.
Because Br. Skinner would not be far from second base – maybe 70 feet away –if he did catch it, Ray had to stay relatively close to that base to avoid another possible inning-ending double play. However, it turned out the ball landed safely, forcing the baserunners to have to try to advance. Again collecting the ball on the first bounce, Br. Skinner had an easy time gunning a throw to third base to force Ray out, earning his second assist of the inning as Metcalf crossed the plate with the Mudcats’ eighth run.
With Cardona and, from the seventh on, reliever Jack Albright fairly easily keeping the Nevada lineup quiet, the early 7-2 cushion – even though it could have been fluffier – proved more than sufficient.
Just to be sure, Chillicothe added two runs in the fourth off first reliever Aaron Hassell on back-to-back, 2-outs, RBI singles by Merritt and Welch.
Nevada nicked Floridian Cardona for a third run in his sixth and final inning before Albright earned his first save with three scoreless innings of relief.
The Mudcats made a bid for a 10-runs-rule victory in their eighth in the wake of Metcalf slamming a pitch just over the fence about 20 feet inside the left-field foul line for the first Haney Field roundtripper the home team has managed in 2019 (it has 14 home runs away from home).
After Metcalf re-tied Grace, who had gone deep a fourth time this season at Jefferson City Monday, for the team lead in home runs – the Indianan leads the MINK League with 18 extra-base hits, Ray doubled down the right-field line and took third on a wild pitch. Following a walk to pinch-hitter Brandon Settles, Merritt grounded a hit into left field that plated Ray and sent the speeding Settles sliding safely into third.
Following a hit batsman, Settles showed off his speed again. As Hunter Johnson’s foul pop fly was caught by the Nevada first baseman near the out-of-play fence about 120 feet from the plate, Settles tagged up and broke for home, noticing the Griffons catcher had vacated the plate area to help communicate to the first baseman that he had room to make the catch. Before the receiver could hurry back to the dish and be in position to take a throw, the Chillicothe outfielder had blazed across the plate standing up for a 12-3 advantage.
With the potential game-ending run at third base, as Merritt also had tagged up and advanced from second to third after the first baseman’s catch, Wargo went down swinging to require the top of the ninth be played.
Statistically, the victorious home team dominated nearly every number. In addition to outscoring it by nine, it out-hit Nevada 12-5 and committed only one error, compared to four by the visitors, who entered the series in last place in the MINK League’s South Division. About the only number that was similar was the left-on-base total for each side; they stranded 10 runners apiece.
Individually, Merritt’s two hits and three runs batted in topped the Chillicothe charts, but others pitched in their fair share. Gonzalez had a team-high three hits, Welch and Grace drove in two runs each, Wargo and Metcalf each reached four times on a hit and three walks, and Metcalf, of course, had the home run.
Nevada’s five hits came from separate players as Cardona allowed three runs – all earned – on three hits over six innings in his best Chillicothe start to date. He walked four and hit one and notched three strikeouts. Albright whiffed five Griffons in his three innings, although he also walked three and plunked one.
Albright’s first save was the team’s ninth, drawing it within three of the team single-season record.
Wargo also is closing in on a Mudcats record. The Benid, Ill. resident’s 33 bases on balls are third-most in a season by a Fish, three less than Tyler Knight’s 36 in 2008 and only six fewer than Kenny Jarema’s record 39 two years ago.
Although there still are many games yet to be played, the Mudcats’ current winning percentage (.667) is second only to the .675 rate the 27-13 2006 league-champion Fish posted.