North Division leaders got solo home runs from Terrance Spurlin and J.P. Tighe and 3-runs, ninth-inning double from Karl Koerper and superb pitching from unheralded Jared Wilson to widen lead to 3-1/2 games July 14
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — What had diminished – with back-to-back losses to Nevada and Ozark a few nights earlier – into a long-shot chance for the 2019 Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats to overtake the St. Joseph Mustangs for the MINK League’s North Division regular-season, college-level baseball championship didn’t quite die officially Sunday evening (July 14), but it certainly absorbed a mortal blow, albeit one softened a bit by other developments.
Hosting the Mustangs in the first of four head-to-head meetings in the final eight days of their regular season, the Mudcats saw St. Joseph use a second solo home run of the game to break a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh inning and then put the game out of reach in the ninth in a 6-1 Mustangs victory.
The outcome, inflating the Ponies’ lead over second-place Chillicothe to 3-1/2 games, all but assured the visitors of finishing first in the division’s regular-season standings and thus gain both a first-round bye in the division playoffs and the right to host the survive-and-advance second-round game that will decide the North’s representative in the league championship series.
While the Fish fell to 21-12 in league play and 23-13 overall in this summer’s college-level, wood-bat=league action, they stayed a full three games ahead of third-place Sedalia. The Bombers (15-12 MINK and overall) lost 7-4 at home to South runnerup Joplin, missing a chance to gain a game on the Mudcats. The division’s second-place club at season’s end will host the third-place finisher in a 1-game playoff early next week – tentatively on Tuesday, July 23.
Chillicothe will have both Monday and Tuesday (July 15-16) off before hosting Sedalia Wednesday and St. Joseph (29-9, 23-7 MINK) Thursday – both at 7:05 p.m. starts – in its last two regular-season home games.
While the Mudcats sit idle, Sedalia will host Joplin twice more. If the defending league champs drop either or both of those games, Chillicothe’s “magic number” of six for clinching at least second place would shrink by one with any loss.
Sunday’s tussle between the teams with, far and away, the MINK League’s best records thus far lived up to its billing, even if that’s not reflected in the final score. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, it still was a 2-1 contest.
Any bottom-of-the-ninth drama effectively was removed when Mustangs power-hitting first baseman/outfielder Karl Koerper followed a bases-loaded walk to Terrance Spurlin that made it 3-1, St. Joseph, with a booming, bases-clearing double to deep right-center. Already warmed up in anticipation of only a 1-run lead to protect, San Jose closer Jake Purl came on to retire the side in order in the home half to finish things.
That the game was a 1-1 tie after six innings was the product of outstanding, yet divergently-crafted starting pitching from Chillicothe lefthander Scott Duensing and St. Joseph righthander Jared Wilson.
Despite Duensing consistently working from behind in the ball-strike count and Wilson throwing almost-exclusively strikes, the two faced only one batter over the minimum through the first three innings, which zipped by in about 30 minutes.
In the top of the fourth, Duensing, who – like subsequent reliever Garrett West benefitted from some bad hitting luck by St. Joseph, which hit the ball “on the screws” time and time again, only to have the ball routinely go right to a Chillicothe fielder, fell behind each of the first two Mustangs batters 2-0 before they ripped shots that sailed straight into Fish leather in the outfield.
Facing St. Joseph cleanup batter Spurlin, Duensing once more missed the strike zone with his first two pitches. Once more, the Mustangs batter squared up the next pitch, but with a different launch angle. Instead of a high line drive, Spurlin got under a low, inside pitch and hit a high fly deep down the left-field line. The ball carried over the fence about 335 feet away, about 10-15 feet fair, and the guests had the game’s first run.
That remained the score into the bottom of the fifth with the Mudcats still in search of their first baserunner against Wilson, a Kansas Citian who had not appeared in a game with St. Joseph since June 11 and who had only a pair of 1-inning stints in early-season play.
Showing absolutely no sign of rustiness with his simple, straightforward delivery from the windup, Wilson constantly had Chillicothe’s batters on the defensive with a fanatical fixation on the strike zone. Each of the first 13 batters either took a called strike one, swung and missed or fouled off the first pitch of their at-bat, and immediately put the ball in play for an out.
Batter No. 14, Chet Merritt did the same, taking two strikes, before catching a break. His routine roller to shortstop was briefly booted and, by the time it was recovered and thrown to first, the hustling Merritt had reached safely on the error.
That broke Wilson’s spell a bit, forcing him to work from the stretch or set position for the first time on the evening.
The difference showed immediately when his first offering to Dom Trevino, the next batter, missed the strike zone. Although the hurler recovered with three strikes in a row, the third was fouled away to keep Trevino alive. Wilson then threw three balls in a row and, although still without a hit, Chillicothe had two men on.
Outfielder Jack Grace (LaGrange, Ill.), who would play a central role in a big play in the late innings, got behind on the count 0-2, but found the next delivery hittable, bouncing a hard 2-hopper cleanly between the third baseman and shortstop for a single – the Mudcats’s first hit.
Not only was it their first hit, but it also put them on the scoreboard. With Merritt already rounding third as he got to the ball, St. Joseph left fielder Max Mircovich couldn’t come up with the bouncing ball cleanly, meaning Merritt scored without a throw, tying the game at 1-1 after five.
Following a scoreless sixth, with Duensing (Overland Park, Kan.) having thrown 88 pitches – nearly half (43) balls, Chillicothe head coach Caleb Bounds called on his bullpen to try to keep the status quo, but that hope soon was dashed.
After getting an out on a well-hit fly ball to left field, new hurler Garrett West (Atlanta, Mo.), another lefty like Duensing, put a 2-2 pitch to No. 8 batter J.P. Tighe in about the same location that Spurlin pounced on against Duensing (2-1) three innings earlier. The result was a near-mirror-image, a high, well-struck fly down the left field line that stayed aloft long enough for it to slip over the wall in left, again a short distance fair. Once again, the Mustangs had used the long ball to take the lead, making it the second game in a row Chillicothe pitchers had surrendered two bombs to leave spacious “Chuck” Haney Field at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium.
After West sandwiched a walk between two 1-out singles for St. Joseph in the top of the eighth, Bounds sent out a distress call for a righthander, Chandler Griggs. Inheriting a 2-0 count against batter Drew Beazely with nowhere to put him that would not score at least one run, Griggs came through in spades.
He battled to a full count on Beazely before getting him to pop up to shortstop. The Columbus, Ga., hurler then struck out Chillicothean Derek Hussey on three pitches, stranding the bases loaded and keeping it a 1-run game to give the home team a huge boost.
Even though Wilson only had thrown 83 pitches – all except 15 of them strikes or drawing Chillicothe swings – through seven innings, St. Joseph head coach Johnny Coy and his staff elected to turn the lead over to hard-throwing righthander Ryan Scharf. The Mudcats gratefully accepted the move.
After the Mustangs reliever’s first pitch was a late-swinging strike to Grace, then second was a fastball that buzzed just past the batter’s head. The next also came up and in, but appeared to be just a bit lower, thankfully, as it drilled an ungrateful Grace seemingly on the shoulder, sending him to first base.
Signalled to take a pitch to see if Scharf would stay wild out of the strike zone, Hunter Johnson watched a strike go by before smoothly executing Bounds’ order for a sacrifice bunt that moved Grace into scoring position with one out.
In a righty-on-righty battle, Chillicothe’s No. 9 batter Brandon Settles got the count to 2-2 before making good contact with another heater. The ball quickly zipped on a line into left field for a clean single, sending Grace – who has decent, but not great, speed – toward third.
A split-second before the runner touched third, a charging Mircovich was able to collect a near-waist-high hop on the hard-hit ball in perfect position to fire a throw to the infield. Although the outfielder was no more than 200 feet away from home plate as he made his throw, Grace surprisingly was waved home by Bounds. Only a stride past third when Mircovich zipped his low throw toward home, Grace was handily cut down at the plate on a relay throw from third baseman Spurlin.
Now with two outs and Settles at second, rather than the first-and-third situation they could have had – one which would have offered the opportunity for the speedy Settles to perhaps steal his way into scoring position, too, as Tate Wargo batted, the Fish needed something special from their leadoff hitter. However, continuing to show possible signs of late-season fatigue as his bat has seemed to drag through the strike zone the last several games, Wargo could do nothing better than lift a lazy fly ball to center fielder Hussey for the final out of the eighth.
The 2-1 score blew up before Chillicothe got its last hacks.
Tighe tattooed another deep drive to left, this time a double to the wall more to left-center field, to begin the top of the ninth. A hit batsman followed.
Griggs attempted to stem the tide again, fielding a comebacker and, after a moment’s hesitation, throwing to third to force out the lead runner. Had the hurler immediately thrown to second base, as he started to do, or let the bouncer go on by, it appeared the Mudcats could or would have turned a double play which, while letting Tighe reach third, would have resulted in Griggs’ subsequent strikeout of the next batter being the third out.
Instead, with the whiff made only two outs and brought St. Joseph’s No. 3 batter – likely its best, Jordan Maxson – to the plate. He sent a hard grounder toward the hole on the left side of the infield, but diving third baseman Johnson speared it. While he could not get a throw away to second in time to force the runner going there from first, by keeping the ball on the infield, he prevented the lead runner from going further than third.
With that reprieve, Griggs was left in to try to get Spurlin, but issued a walk to him on five pitches, doubling the Mustangs’ lead to 3-1.
Bounds then switched to his closer, Jack McNellis, but his second offering to the lefty-hitting Koerper, winner of the league’s recent “Home Run Derby” at its All-Star Game festivities was too juicy. The ball was driven high and far to right-center and by the time it returned to the infield, St. Joseph had doubled its runs total and the game effectively was over.
Statistically, all of the meaningful and eye-popping numbers were on the St. Joseph side of the ledger, headlined by Wilson’s 68 strikes in 83 pitches and two hits allowed with no earned runs in seven innings.
The Mustangs out-hit the Mudcats 10-3, getting the two long balls from Tighe and Spurlin and the decisive 3-runs double from Koerper. The Chillicothe hits – all singles – came from Grace, Settles, and league hits leader Logan Eickhoff, who bunted his way on leading off the seventh, only to never budge beyond first.
Despite not having crisp control, Duensing dodged and darted his way through six innings of 1-run ball against the league leaders. He walked two and hit one, while striking out only one. Because of Tighe’s homer, West (2-2) suffered the loss.
The game had only one defensive error – the St. Joseph boot that led to the lone Chillicothe run.