Wednesday's (July 17, 2019) 7-3 Sedalia college-level baseball victory eliminates Mudcats from race for first in MINK League North, damages chances to finish second ahead of Bombers

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — A late-season batch of frozen Fish sticks officially starved the Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats’ hopes of being 2019 MINK League North Division regular-season champions. Now it remains to be seen whether they can be heated quickly enough to hold only second place, not that – all things considered – that might be the best thing for their hopes of ending the summer as league champions.
Held to three or fewer runs for a fourth time in the past six contests, the Mudcats again dropped below the .500 mark (9-10) on the home field Wednesday (July 17), following a pair of “off” days with a 7-3 loss to the visiting Sedalia Bombers in a game which, had Chillicothe won, would have been a giant step toward assuring the Fish of finishing second behind now-certain North regular-season champ St. Joseph and hosting their first-round playoffs game with the Bombers next week.
Instead, both teams walked off the field owning 13 league losses through July 17. By having played – and won – four more loop contests than Sedalia to that point, the Mudcats held a 2-games lead over it in the division standings and effectively still had a clear inside track to the runnerup spot. However, with three of their four remaining games being against the division leaders – one last night in Chillicothe’s “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium and two on the Mustangs’ field this Saturday and Sunday – and the Ponies being on a sensational 10-games league winning streak, there is a very real possibility the Mudcats could go 1-3 in their remaining games.
If that was to happen, Sedalia would need to go only 5-3 between now and next Monday to finish in a dead-heat with the Mudcats. In the case of a tie, with Wednesday’s Bombers victory here having left them with a 4-2 advantage in the season series with Chillicothe, Sedalia would host the clubs’ now-certain first-round division playoff game, since the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record during the regular season.
On the heels of last night’s regular-season home finale, Chillicothe will visit last-place Clarinda, Iowa, tonight before calling on St. Joseph tomorrow and Sunday. Head coach Caleb Bounds of the Mudcats previously indicated he plans to start righthander Jake Gill (2-0) against the A’s tonight with righty Dylan Govin (0-0) for Saturday before using an undetermined hurler in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
That would appear to lefthanders Brandan Van Buren and Scott Duensing – in some order – the likely starters for next week’s two potential North Division playoff games
Wednesday’s Chillicothe loss to Sedalia largely was determined in the fifth inning when a scoreless game on a hot night went south in a hurry.
Mudcats starting pitcher Brock Pettit (3-2), who suffered his second loss in a row, was neither sharp nor ineffective through the first four innings. However, in the heat and humidity on an evening when the game-time heat index still was just above 100 degrees, throwing under duress in each of the first four frames seemed to lead to a quick descent to vulnerability in the top of the fifth.
The Bombers put runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings, including having a second-and-third chance with two outs in the third, and never went down in order.
During the same stretch, the Mudcats moved only one man beyond first, although he nearly scored. In the third, Hunter Johnson singled on a bunt toward third base and went to second when the throw went wild. After a wild pitch let him take third, he tried to tag and score after the Sedalia first baseman’s staggering catch of a foul popup beyond first base, but was thrown out.
With Pettit, working mostly out of the bullpen, having thrown more than four innings only twice previously this summer and the longest of those two having been a 7-innings stint only six days before, getting much if anything effective beyond four innings probably was an “iffy” proposition in any conditions. On a sultry night, with having had to throw quite a few “stressed” pitches to navigate the first four scorelessly, the chances of success in a fifth inning or beyond figured to decline pretty steeply.
As it worked out, even with being at only 59 pitches thrown prior to the fifth, four was his limit for effectiveness.
His first pitch in the fifth inning of a 0-0 game was ripped for a hit to left-center field by the Bombers’ leadoff batter. When the next batter battled for eight pitches to get a walk, an ominous feel crept over the proceedings for the home fans.
The fast-fading Fish flinger then filled the bases with a 4-pitches walk, putting Sedalia’s cleanup batter at the plate with one of the league’s best hitters due behind him, although it turned out that man would not bat.
Sedalia right fielder Dalton Bealmer put his team on the scoreboard with a line-drive single to left, making it 1-0. Pinch-hitter Brain Pannier, unexpectedly replacing star center fielder A.J. Gardner, dropped behind the count 0-2, but then got a meaty pitch he could drive to relatively-deep center field. Although it was caught, the runners at second and third bases easily moved up as the Bombers went in front 2-0.
Despite his pitch count now having climbed into the 80s with more than 20 in the inning, Pettit was kept in to face one more batter, who he walked – his seventh of the game – to refill the bases.
The call to the bullpen finally made, the pitcher summoned was big righthander Cristhian Cardona, who had not previously thrown in relief this season and who entered with his own history of control problems – a combined 31 walks and hit batsmen in 27 previous innings of work.
Unfortunately for him and the team, after the Florida resident got two quick strikes on the first batter he faced, he missed the zone with the next two and then hit the batter with the 2-2 delivery, forcing home a third run of the frame.
A throwing error by second baseman Marcus Gonzalez on a routine force play at second put another run on the board ahead of a ground-ball single to right.
At that juncture, Sedalia had batted around and eight of the nine men had reached and the visitors had a 5-0 lead. Only a very good diving, backhand stop by shortstop Tate Wargo that produced a forceout at second, even as a sixth run scored, kept the inning from turning out even worse, but the 6-0 spread looked plenty safe, given the way the Mudcats have not been hitting.
To the hosts’ credit, they did some damage to Sedalia starting pitcher Jordan Mendenhall as he likely began wearing down in the heat in the sixth, but, aided by a key fielding play by his own shortstop, limited the damage to three runs.
Johnson led off the Chillicothe sixth with his second hit, a hard bouncer up the middle. Brandan Settles also went back
“through the box,” only to see the Bombers shortstop nearly turn it into an out with a diving grab and flip to second that wasn’t held on what would have been a close play as Johnson slid in.
When Wargo followed with his league-leading 35th base on balls, although down six, Chillicothe had the bases full, no outs, and the best part of its lineup due up soon.
Gonzalez smacked another sharply-hit ball on the ground toward center field, but this time the diving Quin Reasoner not only gloved it cleanly, but made a backhand flip to second to get Wargo for the first out while Johnson put the Mudcats on the scoreboard for the first time.
With runners at the corners and the league’s leading hitter, Logan Eickhoff, at bat, Gonzalez took off for second on the second pitch. With the middle infielders in motion, due to the steal attempt, Eickhoff’s bouncer to the left side easily went through for a RBI single that scored Settles from third and sent Gonzalez continuing on to third.
With Nolan Metcalf, one of the league’s top hitters and run producers now batting, the Mudcats were in position to perhaps close to within a couple of runs or less with still a third of the game remaining. However, they’d settle for only adding on one and being fortunate to do that.
With Eickhoff a threat to steal unoccupied second base and drawing the middle infielders’ attention, Metcalf lifted a high  popup seemingly destined toward shallow right-center field, likely not deep enough for even the swift Gonzalez to try to score after the catch. However, with the second baseman having quickly cleared out of the area in anticipation of the right fielder handling the catch, the ball was held up by the slight breeze from the south-southeast and stopped carrying toward the outfield at all.
Suddenly, the right fielder was charging harder and harder toward the infield to get to the ball, finally lunging forward and to his left to squeeze it about 20 feet or less onto the outfield grass behind the second baseman’s position. In making that lunge, he momentarily went to one knee, creating just enough delay for Gonzalez, despite the catch occurring only about 140 feet from home plate, to dash for home. Given the brief moment the right fielder needed to get back on both feet, square himself to throw, and fire toward the plate, his loss of momentum and hurried release sent his throw a couple of feet to the first-base side of the plate. By the time the catcher backhanded the throw and lunged back toward the third-base side of the dish, Gonzalez’ head-first slide had let his hand touch it, giving Metcalf a run batted in with a sacrifice fly.
On the throw home, Eickhoff alertly tagged up and took second, as well, giving the next batter a chance to score a fourth run with no more than a hit, but a called third strike on a 3-2 delivery ended the inning and Mendenhall’s night on the hill.
Sedalia lefthanded reliever Garrett Morrow made quick work of Chillicothe in the seventh and eventually notched a save with three hitless, scoreless innings, although he did have to withstand a last-gasp rally attempt in the ninth.
After two hits, one of six Cardona walks in four innings, and a wild pitch tacked on an important insurance run for the Bombers in the eighth, Chillicothe reliever Chandler Griggs bailed his teammate out of a bases-full – all on walks, 1-out jam in the ninth Griggs came in to strike out both men he faced to keep the Fish within four.
In the bottom of the ninth, 1-out walks to Dom Trevino and pinch-batter Chet Merritt and a 2-outs plunking of Johnson put the potential tying run in the batter’s box in the person of the speedy, hard-swinging Settles. However, instead of getting the square contact that might put the tying run aboard – possibly in scoring position, Settles hit a 1-0 pitch high in the air just behind the pitcher’s mound, where it was caught for the game-ending out.
Statistically Wednesday, Sedalia only out-hit Chillicothe 7-6, but its batters received  a dizzying 13 walks (plus the one hit batter), compared to the Mudcats drawing only four free passes (plus an HBP).
Chillicothe’s Eickhoff went three for four with a run batted in, sending his league-high hits total to 59 – only one shy of tying for the eighth-most in a season in Mudcats history – and his league-best batting average back over .400 to .401. Sedalia had two hits each from Bealmer and Jake Lufft and its six runs batted in came from six separate sources.
Seemingly not coincidental to the team’s current offensive malaise, regular leadoff man Wargo was unable to benefit from the preceding two idle days to shake his recent slump,. He went zero for three and now has only one hit in his last 20 at-bats.
In addition, Gonzalez, who Bounds has had in either the No. 1 or 2 spot in the lineup in six of the past seven games has only two hits in his last 24 at-bats.
Their combined, coincidental slides at the top of the order have left heavy hitters Eickhoff and Metcalf with few run-producing opportunities, leading to the team’s overall lack of scoring in the current downturn.