After 6-2 loss to South basement resident Nevada Thursday (July 11), Fish's final 2019 homestand continues with Friday evening twinbill vs. South leader Ozark
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — The 18th season of Chillicothe Mudcats college-level, wood-bat baseball this summer has been one of the organization’s best on the field and already is certain of extending to postseason action next week.
However, Thursday night (July 11), the 2019 Fish couldn’t solve one recurring bugaboo – one they hoped to get additional cracks at decoding either this past weekend or between now and next Monday’s regular-season finale.
Back at their true home – “Chuck” Haney Field in Chillicothe’s “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium – after downing the Nevada Griffons a second-consecutive time the night before at Trenton, the Mudcats strode onto the diamond at game’s start exactly one game behind St. Joseph’s Mustangs, who sat atop the MINK League’s North Division standings. Completing a sweep of the South Division’s current cellar-dweller and picking up a season-best fifth-straight triumph had the potential to push the Fish into a tie for the division lead by night’s end, if St. Joseph cooperated by losing to the last-place Clarinda (Iowa) A’s.
It was Chillicothe’s third occasion this season in which it began action with the possibility of either tying for or taking over the division lead. However, for a third time, the Mudcats could not hold up even their end of the bargain.
Nevada received outstanding pitching from the duo of Joel Ballard Jr. and Brayland Skinner, shuttering the Chillicothe attack on six spaced-out hits and two runs (only one earned) in a 6-2 Griffons victory.
In the meantime, St. Joseph was pounding Clarinda 15-9 on the road, once again expanding its division lead over the Fish. The Mustangs pulled two games in front once more – three games in the important “lost” column – at 20-7 with Chillicothe slipping to 19-10 in league play.
The Mudcats and Ponies will have four head-to-head clashes in the regular season’s last nine days, the first of which will take place in Chillicothe this Sunday night. The miss against Nevada did nothing to lessen the likelihood Chillicothe will have to win three of those four contests to overtake the Mustangs of “San Jose.”
The Mudcats can resume their pursuit Friday (July 12) as they host South Division leader Ozark (13-14, 13-12 MINK) in a 6:05 p.m. doubleheader. Chillicothe's starting pitchers are expected to be righthanders Tyler Venditti (1-3) and Tyler Ingram (1-3).
Thursday’s Chillicothe loss to Nevada continued another unfortunate pattern for the home team, as well – not succeeding in front of the home fans. The Mudcats’ record at home for this summer settled back to the .500 mark – 7-7 – with the quiet defeat. Conversely, the Fish own a spectacular 14-4 mark on diamonds other than Haney Field.
The hosts led the series finale with the Griffons (10-18, 10-17 MINK) ever so briefly, thanks to a first-inning single by Tate Wargo, his theft of second base, and groundouts by the next two batters.
That run might have been averted by righthander Ballard, who – with Wargo at third and one out – speared Logan Eickhoff’s sharp grounder to his glove side and, with a quick glance, had the baserunner well off third base and vulnerable to a rundown play. Making a split-second decision to make sure of getting at least one out, Ballard threw the ball to the first baseman to retire Eickhoff. As he did, Wargo opted to try to score and barely got his sliding foot on the plate before the catcher applied the tag after the first baseman threw there.
Three batters into the top of the Nevada second, the lead flipped. Griffons third baseman Chris O’Neal followed Eli Harrison’s ground-ball single just past the glove of the Mudcats first baseman with a sizzling shot over the wall in deepest left field that put his team up 2-1.
Chillicothe starting pitcher Brock Pettit (3-1), the club’s only 3-games winner, but generally more successful as a long reliever this summer, saw a line drive to left-center field in the third inning become a 1-out triple for Clint Allen, setting up a sacrifice fly to right by the next batter – eventual Nevada relief pitcher Brayland Skinner, who started in center field.
Pettit, last week's MINK League tri-pitcher of the week, blanked the guests the rest of his strong 7-innings stint, in which he allowed only six hits with no walks and five strikeouts. However, with the Nevada pitching pair putting the silencer on the usually-talkative Chillicothe sticks, enough damage had been done for the visitors to head home happy.
After righty Ballard allowed only four hits and one run in five innings, athletic lefty Br. Skinner came forward to the hill and was similarly dominant. He notched a save with four frames of 2-hits ball with only an unearned run allowed – albeit it was his own error that set up that tally.
Behind 3-1 going to the bottom of the seventh inning, Chillicothe (21-11, 19-10 MINK), which has authored numerous comeback conquests this season – several in the late innings, received a leadoff single from catcher Brady Welch to lead off that segment.
Seeking – with very fast Brandon Settles at the plate – to test the Nevada infield defense and hoping to find it wanting, Mudcats head coach Caleb Bounds went against “the book” and signaled for Settles to bunt, despite the 2-runs deficit.
The coach’s hope for a misplay bore fruit when Settles’ bunt to the first-base side of the mound was fumbled initially by the outfielder-turned-hurler when he tried for a quick pickup and throw to second. Recovering the ball, the Nevada moundsman rushed a throw to first where the play would have been close, but the first sacker couldn’t hold onto the low peg anyway. Chillicothe had the potential tying runs on base and the top of its batting order coming up.
Not surprisingly, Bounds again called for a bunt from Wargo and he got a sacrifice down again to the first-base side of the bump. This one Br. Skinner handled cleanly and threw accurately to get the first out of the inning.
With two teammates in scoring position, Gonzalez could not deliver a key hit, instead sending a routine grounder right at the drawn-in first baseman. Looking across to force Welch to stop and stay near third, the Griffons infielder sidled to the nearby base and tagged it for the second out.
When he looked up, however, he became aware that, while Welch had stopped, Settles at second had not and was only about 30 feet from third base. As the Nevada first baseman took a couple of steps toward the left side of the infield, Settles accelerated his pace back toward second, inducing a throw to a middle infielder between Settles and the base. With perfect timing, as soon as he saw the first baseman turn his body into position to make that throw, Welch – no speedster – floored it for home plate. Although the throw from either the second baseman or shortstop looked likely to retire him, the ball arrived just enough to the fair side of the dish for the Mudcat’s outstanding, fadeaway, head-first slide to the foul side to find room for his extended left hand to touch the plate before the catcher’s stretching tag.
Getting the favorable call on the bang-bang play meant, in spite of what should have been, Chillicothe was within 3-2 and had its best hitter – Logan Eickhoff – and his over-.400 batting average up with Settles at third.
Br. Skinner was not phased by the turn of events, though, getting Eickhoff out on a routine fly ball to right field to strand Settles.
Before Chillicothe’s batters could get another crack at the Nevada hurler in a 1-run game, the top part of Nevada’s lineup went to work hard on Mudcats reliever Kale Harris.
The soft-throwing lefthander quickly gave up back-to-back singles to put men at the corners for power-hitting Dom Hernandez. After Harris’ first offering to the righthanded hitter missed the strike zone, Bounds made the obvious choice to order an intentional walk, loading the bases and – with a force play anywhere – hoping his southpaw could wriggle free with little or no damage by retiring the lefthanded batters who were coming next.
The strategy immediately was shredded.
Ian Jacobs, who had entered the game to play left field when Br. Skinner vacated the outfield for the mound, jumped all over the first pitch he saw and rifled a single to right field. Despite a strong, accurate throw from Jack Grace there, Br. Skinner followed Clint Allen home, getting a safe call on another very close play. That made it 5-2.
With men at first and third, the next batter, Eli Harrison, pulled a slow grounder into the hole on the right side. Even though second sacker Gonzalez ranged a long way back and to his left from his drawn-in position to glove it cleanly, by the time he could get a throw to first, Harrison had arrived. The infield hit drove Hernandez home with a third run of the inning.
Finally finding some effective placement of his pitches, Harris managed to get a forceout grounder and strikeout from the next two batters and Welch picked Harrison off at first on the third-strike pitch for an inning-halting double play, but significant bleeding had occurred.
As things played out – although it’s not possible to know if the same scenario would have occurred, if it still had been a 1-run game, the Nevada relief pitcher retired the Mudcats in order in the eighth and, erasing a leadoff hit by Chet Merritt in the ninth with a made-to-order double-play grounder off Welch’s bat, closed it out without worry in the ninth.
Statistically, the Griffons had a 10-6 advantage in hits and each side was assigned one error. Alex Telles joined Harrison and Allen in collecting two hits for the visitors. Welch was two for three for Chillicothe, which had a 4-games winning streak halted.
With the Mudcats – to no one’s shock, considering they have only one at Haney Field this season – not hitting a home run in Thursday’s game, their team-record-equaling skein of four games in a row with a roundtripper was terminated.