Thursday's 9-5 loss to division champ St. Joseph assured Mudcats of sub-.500 home mark for season, tightened race with Sedalia for second place
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Tim Cool, it appears it’s going to be up to you.
Cool, Chillicothe public schools physical education instructor, middle school activities director, and – most notably – CHS boys’ basketball head coach most of the past decade, was a big baseball fan growing up, so when the Chillicothe Mudcats were casting about a couple of years ago for a regular or even full-time driver of the bus for the college-level summer baseball team’s away games and road trips, he contacted the team and became the man at the wheel when the team hit the road.
This year, when Cool has hit the gas to get the team where it needs to be geographically, he’s also proven adept at getting them where they want to go, results-wise. with the club posting an excellent 14-4 record outside of Chillicothe. However, it now appears he’ll have to maintain his “good-luck charm” status if the Mudcats are to hang on and finish second in the MINK League’s North Division regular-season standings and thus earn the right to host their playoffs opener either tomorrow or, if inclement weather interfered sometime in the past few days or does so today, as soon as the league concludes its regular campaign.
With a continued general lack of hitting from anyone other than heart-of-the batting-order mainstays Logan Eickhoff and Nolan Metcalf – particularly in potential scoring situations – and a pitching staff with a renewed penchant for handing out free bases, as well as an unwelcome, new-found tendency for being unable to keep the ball in their Mudcats’ spacious home park, Chillicothe missed an opportunity to take a big leap toward being second across the divisional finish line Thursday night (July 18, 2019) when they lost to the blazing-hot, regular-season division champs, the St. Joseph Mustangs 9-5.
Beginning their game two games ahead of the Sedalia Bombers by virtue of having played and won four more league games than last year’s league champs, the Mudcats were barely an inning or two into their 9-innings game when Sedalia sustained a road loss to the last-place Clarinda (Iowa) A’s in the first game of those teams’ doubleheader.
That meant if Chillicothe could win its last regular-season home game – in front of the season’s largest crowd at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium – and finish with at least an even-steven 10-10 record on “Chuck” Haney Field, its “magic number” for clinching second place and hosting the Bombers in this week’s first-round playoff game would drop to at least three. A Mudcats victory and another surprise defeat for Sedalia in its nightcap could have cut it to two, meaning any future combination of Chillicothe wins and Sedalia losses adding up to two would give the Fish second place.
However, instead of a moderate gain in that regard, the Mudcats both settled for a minimal reduction of that number to four and actually lost ground to the Bombers in the standings when Sedalia handily captured its second game to pull within 1-1/2 games of Chillicothe.
Because each team lost once on the night, leaving each with 14 MINK League setbacks to date this summer, Sedalia actually kept its destiny in its own hands. If the Bombers, no matter how unlikely, somehow were to avoid defeat in their final six regular-season games, the worst they could do would be finish tied with Chillicothe at 24-14 in league play. If the clubs do finish with the same league marks, regardless of what they turn out to be, Sedalia would take second place and host the North playoff opener between the two because of a 4-2 record in head-to-head action with the Fish this summer.
The Mudcats (23-15, 21-14 MINK) will try their own luck at righting their ship at Clarinda Friday night (July 19) when they meet the A’s in a 7 p.m. game on Merl Eberly Field at Clarinda Municipal Stadium. Chillicothe head coach Caleb Bounds has indicated he plans to start righthander Jake Gill (2-0) in the game.
The Fish then are slated to wrap up their regular-season schedule with Saturday and Sunday evening games at St. Joseph, whose Thursday triumph in Chillicothe was its 12th in a row overall and 11th consecutively in league play.
With the North Division title and home-field advantage throughout the league playoffs secured heading into their visit to Chillicothe, San Jose’s Mustangs didn’t play Thursday’s game “all-out” to win, yet still did so with assistance from the Fish.
While Ponies head coach Johnny Coy sent one of his best starting pitchers – Mack Stephenson – to the mound against the Mudcats, he lifted him with a 5-2 lead after only five solid innings that yielded eight strikeouts and only three hits.
Chillicothe then raked seven hits against hard-throwing reliever Ryan Scharf over the next two innings, but managed to produce only three runs in the process – stranding the bases loaded in both the sixth and seventh frames, just as they had without scoring in the fifth. Still that was enough to knot the score at 5-5 going to the eighth.
Mudcats lefthanded reliever Garrett West (2-3), who had surrendered three hits – including a tiebreaking seventh-inning home run – and a walk in only 1-1/3 innings against the Mustangs only five nights before and who already had faced 11 St. Joe batters and allowed a run on two hits, two hit batsmen, and a walk in this game, was sent back out to try to keep the score tied in the eighth. While he came close, he could not as, again, he was bitten by the long-ball “bug.”
Starting the top of the eighth with a walk to hard-hitting Jordan Maxson, the Atlanta, Mo., resident caught a bit of a break when cleanup man Terrance Spurlin’s hard-hit drive was to dead-center field and landed in the glove of Dom Trevino for a loud first out. West they won a lefty-lefty duel with big Karl Koerper, who also made very hard contact, but put too much air under the ball while also hitting it to generally straightaway center. When Trevino made the routine catch, St. Joseph had a runner at first base with two out and righthanded-hitting Drew Beazely, who West had struck out to end the sixth, up.
On a 1-1 pitch, Maxson attempted to steal second base, which would have taken the bat out of Beazely’s hands, had the pitch been taken or swung on and missed and the baserunner thrown out at second. However, Beazely fouled the pitch to make the count 1-2.
The Mustangs third baseman also swung at the next delivery, but it didn’t go foul. Instead, he lifted a breaking pitch on the inside part of the plate deep down the left field line. At virtually the same spot where J.P. Tighe’s game-winning circuit clout off West had cleared the barrier the previous Sunday night, Beazely’s blast also left the yard – a 2-runs home run which put St. Joseph right back on top after Chillicothe had tied it in the prior half-inning.
After a second St. Joseph reliever quickly retired the home team in order in the eighth, West – extended into a fourth inning, but able to get only one out – and righthander Collin Chalmers surrendered two big insurance runs on 4-straight hits. Although back-to-back hits by Eickhoff and Metcalf led to the Fish eventually getting the potential tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, a routine groundout meant the home team had left the bases loaded for a fourth time in the last five innings and lost for the sixth time in its last 11 games.
Chillicothe’s rallying to tie things in the seventh was the second time it had erased a St. Joseph lead in the game.
Mudcats newcomer Marty Lenhart’s run-scoring triple into the right-field corner and Tate Wargo’s follow-up sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third inning made it 2-2, but the visitors went right back in front in the fourth.
For a second inning in a row, a Mudcats error set up a St. Joseph tally. With two out and none on, Jackson Dierenfeldt singled and then moved to second on starting pitcher Tyler Venditti’s wild pickoff throw. On the next pitch, Jack Wagner singled Dierenfeldt home.
A run each in the top of the fourth and fifth left the Fish down by three, but again they battled back.
With the bases juiced and two outs in the Mudcats’ fifth, Kole Ficken (Boonville, Mo.) pulled a single through the hole into left field, driving home Metcalf from third. Although Trevino smartly was stopped at third base on the hit as the outfielder quickly came up with the ball in shallow left, he was able to score anyway because the left fielder uncorked an unnecessary, too-high throw toward home plate that sailed to the backstop in the air.
As it turned out, Trevino would have scored subsequently as Lenhart then was walked – a free pass which would have forced Trevino home from third, if he’d still been there.
In the Chillicothe seventh, four singles in a row – by Blaine Ray, Eickhoff, Metcalf, and Trevino – tied the game and had the bases loaded again, but this time with none out. Metcalf’s hit to left-center had driven Ray home from second for his team-high 30th run batted in of the season.
With seven of the 12 Mudcats who reliever Scharf had faced having hit safely – some on well-struck balls, some more softly, it was surprising to see the reliever left in the game. That decision probably was due to the outcome having no impact on the Mustangs’ future.
That the righty stayed in ended up working out well for the visitors as he got the next Chillicothe batter to tap into a forceout at home plate, then fanned the next two to prevent the Mudcats from gaining their first lead of the night when it had seemed almost inevitable.
The Mustangs then lowered the boom on West again and Chillicothe’s home woes had continued.
Statistically Thursday, the numbers – like the game score – favored the guests.
St. Joseph out-hit Chillicothe 15-12 and the Mudcats made three of the contest’s four errors. It had the game’s only home run and three of the contest’s four extra-base hits, while also having seven batters reach on walks or as hit batsmen, compared to five for the Fish. Mudcats batters also struck out a dozen times, while only a handful of Mustangs whiffed.
Surprisingly, considering the four times they left the bags stuffed, the Mudcats actually left fewer runners on base – 12 to St. Joe’s 13.
Aside from No. 6 batter Beazely’s decisive long ball, most of the St. Joseph offensive damage was inflicted by the top three men in its lineup. Leadoff man Dierenfeldt was three for three plus a walk and three runs scored before being lifted in mid-game. No. 2 batter Jack Wagner whacked four hits and drove in three runs and No. 3 man Maxson was three for four plus a walk with a run driven in and two scored.
As previously noted, five of the 12 Mudcats hits were delivered by Eickhoff and Metcalf, both of whom now own among the 10-largest hits totals in a season in team history.
Going two for five to keep his league-leading batting average at .401, Eickhoff now has 61 hits this summer, eighth-most ever. Two players are tied for sixth with 68 each.
Metcalf’s 3-for-5 game left him with 54 hits in 2019, tied for 10th all-time with Tyler Duplantis (2012) and early-years stalwart Edgar Ramirez (2005). He’s third in the league between Eickhoff’s No. 1 total and Dierenfeldt’s 57.
Trevino and Ficken also had 2-hits games for the Mudcats and Hunter Johnson was one for two plus three walks.
Lenhart, an Omaha, Neb., resident who played at Southeast (Neb.) Community College this past school year and who plans to transfer to Trenton’s North Central Missouri Pirates this coming year, was added to the Mudcats’ roster earlier Thursday.
He was signed to help make up for the recent departure, due to health reasons, of catcher Brady Welch. With Welch gone, the versatile Eickhoff and Metcalf are the team’s only catchers, reducting Eickhoff’s availability at any of the other six positions at which he’s started this summer (everywhere except first base).
A teammate of Lenhart’s at Southeast CC who also is planning to enroll and play at NCMC in 2019-20, lefthanded pitcher River McCallon, also was added to the Chillicothe roster. He is slotted by Bounds to be the team’s starting pitcher for the regular-season finale at St. Joseph Sunday, although the head coach indicated he might switch off of that, should the game be impactful in the standings, which now looks likely to be the case.