Fans all three batters he faces in ninth to preserve 8-5, playoffs-berth-clinching win over Nevada at Trenton
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
TRENTON, Mo. — With a chance to mathematically clinch their first postseason appearance since 2011, the 2019 Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats had multiple opportunities to bury the Nevada (Mo.) Griffons under an avalanche of runs in the first four innings of their clash at Burleigh Grimes Field in Trenton’s Eastside Park Wednesday (July 10).
When they didn’t, the Griffons – in last place in the MINK League’s South Division – took a crack at making the North Division title-contending Mudcats pay, only to be turned away at the door by Chillicothe closer Jack McNellis.
In his most-impressive performance of a very solid summer season of college-level, wood-bat baseball, McNellis entered in the top of the ninth inning with two runners on base, no one out, and the potential tying run at the plate in the form of Dom Hernandez, one of the league’s top power threats and run producers.
Going to a full count on Hernandez, the stocky righthander from Columbia, Mo., gunned a high fastball past the righthanded hitter’s bat, then followed with consecutive called strikeouts of Nevada’s cleanup and No. 5 batters to earn his sixth save and close out an 8-5 Chillicothe conquest that cemented the Mudcats’ place in this year’s league playoffs.
Entering the contest with the certainty that any win in their last 11 games of the season or any loss by the last-place Clarinda (Iowa) A’s would make it impossible for the A’s to overtake the Fish for one of the league’s three North Division postseason berths, the Mudcats took care of business themselves, although the Iowa team simultaneously lost at Sedalia, as well.
Beyond the clinching of the playoffs berth – an objective which had become increasingly inevitable in the preceding few days as the Mudcats continued their recent rampage and Clarinda slumped further, Wednesday’s win drew Chillicothe again within one game of the MINK League’s North Division lead.
It improved the Mudcats’ league mark to 19-9, while first-place St. Joseph stayed 19-7 in the loop while posting a non-league triumph. Chillicothe and the pacesetting Ponies are slated to play four times – twice at each one’s home field – in the 2019 season’s rapidly-approaching final eight days. They’ve split two meetings thus far.
Third-place Sedalia kept pace with the Mudcats Wednesday with its handling of Clarinda. The Fish, with an eighth triumph in their previous nine games and 11th in the past 13, ended the night still 2-1/2 games ahead of the Bombers with only one game remaining between the two.
The Mudcats’ now-traditional, annual “home game” at neighboring Trenton once more drew a nice crowd on about as nice a mid-July Missouri evening for an outdoors event as one could ask.
The way the game started, it looked like Chillicothe might run Nevada right out of the Grundy County seat and back to the Griffons’ Chillicothe accommodations early.
The Mudcats had a 1-0 lead after two pitches in the home half of the first inning and seemed poised for more, but were stymied.
The next frame, however, saw them parade 10 batters to the plate and score four before leaving the bases loaded. A sixth Chillicothe run quickly went on the Burleigh Grimes Field scoreboard via back-to-back doubles to start the third, but again things fizzled from there.
Still, when righthanded-swinging right fielder Jack Grace sliced a high drive over the fence just inside the right-field foul pole with a man on in the fourth, the Fish owned an 8-0 lead. With starting pitcher Jake Gill having blanked the Griffons on three hits while fanning four through four frames, a 10-runs-lead-rule triumph in seven innings seemed likely, if not inevitable.
However, when Gill suddenly tired in the top of the fifth and reliever Garrett West (2-1), perhaps rushed to get ready and not quite fully loose, let all three baserunners he inherited with one out in that inning score – plus another of his own responsibility, the game’s mid-point suddenly wore a much-different appearance – an 8-4 score.
West, a lefthander from Atlanta, Mo., near Kirksville, who had appeared in only one game in the preceding 22 nights, improved once he got a few batters under his belt and allowed only a heavily-tainted run in the next two innings to hand off an 8-5 lead to righthander Collin Chalmers at the start of the eighth.
Chalmers put the bottom third of the Nevada lineup down in order in the eighth, but, with the score still 8-5, the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters began the ninth, prompting Bounds to summon his sturdy closer. When McNellis, a junior at Luther College last school year, had the right stuff, the Mudcats were over the moon in the pursuit of a playoffs berth.
Chillicothe’s offense was on the hunt against lefthanded Griffons starter Brandin Hallier early.
On the mound Hallier called home last school year as a freshman at North Central Missouri College, Mudcats leadoff man Marcus Gonzalez jumped the southpaw’s first pitch of the game for a line-drive single to left-center field. On the next delivery, Blaine Ray pounded a deep drive to left-center field for a double that easily scored Gonzalez.
The big second inning for the “home” team also began with the first batter – Cole Ficken – first-pitch swinging. The Boonville, Mo., resident and freshman at the University of Central Missouri at Warrensburg last school year ripped it over the left fielder’s head for a double. Follow-up singles by Brady Welch and Hunter Johnson – his first of three hits – doubled the Fish lead to 2-0.
A walk to Brandon Settles loaded the bases before a strikeout got Hallier his first out of the second inning. Another Ray hit gave him his second run batted in of the night and put the score at 3-0.
After Logan Eickhoff, owner of the MINK League’s top batting average entering the game, lost the battle with his NCMC teammate by popping up, Nolan Metcalf bounced a run-scoring hit through the left side and Grace accepted a bases-full walk for a 5-0 Chillicothe lead.
Welch and Johnson doubled at the beginning of the Mudcats’ third to tack on a sixth run before Eickhoff’s leadoff, opposite-field single to right in the fourth was followed two batters later by Grace’s team-leading fifth home run.
Unexpectedly – particularly with Hallier valiantly laboring on for the arms-strapped Griffons despite having yielded 11 hits and eight runs to that juncture, that’s where the Chillicothe scoring stopped.
Hallier went on to last seven full innings and kept the Mudcats stuck on eight runs – only six earned – despite being cuffed for 14 hits and walking two.
When, in the half-inning after the Chillicothe concluded its scoring, Gill unexpectedly faltered three outs away from qualifying for his third win in three decisions, West instead got the win from the bullpen with his three innings of work.
Statistically, Grace’s roundtripper allowed the Mudcats to match a team record for consecutive games with a circuit clout. Metcalf and he have alternated swatting a 4-bagger each of the last four games, a feat Chillicothe had last done in June 2009. The 2005 club was the first to turn that trick.
Although the Fish out-hit the Griffons 14-10, each club had four batters with multi-hits games. For Chillicothe, both Ficken and Ray had three and Johnson and Welch two each. Nevada got two apiece from Coleman Fenton, Clint Allen, Br. Skinner, and Hernandez.
Five of Chillicothe’s hits were good for extra-bases, compared to only one for Nevada (9-18, 9-17 MINK), which remained in South Division basement.
Each of the latter two drove in two Griffons runs, while Grace plated three and Johnson and Ray two each for the Mudcats.
With his sixth save being the 2019 Mudcats’ 10th, McNellis brought both himself and the staff within two of tying long-standing team records. In 2003, Blake Ring earned eight saves, a total submariner Chris Fowler matched the next year. The 2012 club posted a dozen saves with six contributors.
In a wild, wacky sequence in the Nevada seventh inning, Hernandez reached first on a throwing error, moved to second on a missed pickoff-attempt throw, advanced to third base on a pitch in the dirt, and scored when a late throw to third on the short wild pitch sailed down the left-field line for a third Chillicothe error of the inning. The Mudcats finished with four errors to Nevada’s one, yet still won.