North Central Missouri College sophomore-to-be goes five for five, including three triples, setting one team record and tying two others as Mudcats fight off Sedalia Bombers 8-6 July 23, advance to Wednesday MINK League North Division championship game at St. Joseph
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — In their organization’s first league-playoff game in nine years Tuesday (July 23), the 2019 Chillicothe baseball Mudcats turned in a performance highly-typical of their season, earn another game the next night with an 8-6 victory over the now-officially-dethroned defending MINK League champion Sedalia Bombers.
They got excellent relief pitching from their most-reliable bullpen duo – Brock Pettit and Jack McNellis. They received hitting contributions up and down their lineup, leading to 14 hits and eight runs. They used their speed and baserunning aggressive to enhance, significantly, their stickwork. They fielded the ball reliably. And they unleashed a load of Logan.
Already the college-level, wood-bat league’s regular-season batting champion with a .411 average and hits leader with 67, North Central Missouri College sophomore-to-be Logan Eickhoff torched three of the five pitchers Sedalia employed for a 5-for-5 game that set one team record, matched two others, and left him the second-most-prolific hits producer in the Mudcats’ 18-seasons history.
Commented Caleb Bounds, second-year Mudcats head coach of the Eickhoff effort, “He was playing unreal tonight. … It’s awesome to see.”
It all added up to a first-round playoffs triumph on “Chuck” Haney Field at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park that belied their regular-season tendency on their home field and gained them a crack at regular-season MINK League North Division leader St. Joseph (35-10) Wednesday (July 24) with a berth in the league championship series on the line.
That Chillicothe-St. Joseph battle will occur at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joe, beginning at 7 p.m.
It will pit clubs who posted the league’s best records during the regular campaign and split two ultimately-tight games at that site during the regular season, including the latest last Saturday night when the Mudcats (26-15) built a very big lead early and then held on to win, 9-7.
St. Joseph, which had a first-round bye in the playoffs, has the ability to pound a foe into submission with its offense or shut it down with outstanding starting pitching and a vise-like bullpen. However, each of its five games against Chillicothe was been there for either team’s taking in the eighth inning or later.
“I think the guys are very confident” they can knock off the favored Mustangs on the road, Bounds told the C-T after Tuesday’s victory. “They’re playing at a high level right now.
“… They’re wanting to do something special here for Chillicothe.”
Should Chillicothe claim the division berth in the LCS, it will have the option to decide whether it hosts the first game of the best-of-3-games title series or the second and – if needed – decisive third contests. All signs point to the Mudcats opting for the latter – opening against the South Division representative on the road Thursday, should they advance. No official announcement will be made until such time that the Mudcats have qualified for the series, Doug Doughty, team general manager, emphasized Tuesday.
The Mudcats’ task, as they took their home turf Tuesday in front of possibly their largest home crowd of 2019, was to reverse two daunting trends from their regular season.
They’d lost all three meetings with Sedalia on Shaffer Park’s Haney Field and they’d posted a 9-11 record there.
Perhaps coincidentally – or perhaps not, they succeeded in those tasks with their “good luck charm” team bus driver, Tim Cool, watching from the Shaffer Park Stadium stands, possibly for the first time in 2019.
With that “talisman” observing, as he did at their 19-games played outside Chillicothe during the regular season – 15 of which ended as Fish victories, the Mudcats generally were in top form from nearly start to finish Tuesday.
After starting pitcher Scott Duensing, in his first appearance against Sedalia, worked a calm first half-inning, Chillicothe’s bats immediately went to work against familiar Bombers righthander Jackson Schmedding, who had started against them twice previously.
Late-season addition outfielder Marty Lenhart, brought in only due to an illness that kayoed Brady Welch for the rest of the season, drew a leadoff walk in the home half of the first. He zipped easily to third as reenergized Tate Wargo pulled a ground-ball double down the left-field line. That set the table magnificently for Eickhoff, who immediately previewed his huge evening.
Surprisingly ignoring his terrific regular season, Sedalia’s braintrust opted to let Schmedding try to get him out, rather than intentionally walk him and set up a potentially-inning-deflating ground-ball double-play possibility. The La Vista, Neb., resident made them play, walloping a 2-1 pitch deep to left-center field for a 2-runs triple. A couple of batters later, a groundout to shortstop let him Eickhoff score uncontested for a 3-0 Chillicothe lead after one inning.
Eickhoff’s opening-frame damage was a preview of coming attractions.
Eventually, he’d conclude the night with not only five hits – including a team-record three triples, but three runs batted in and three runs scored. Only the 10th Mudcat ever to swat five hits in a game – and the first to do since third baseman Tyler Duplantis in 2012, the NCMC Pirates gem also became the 11th Fish ever to have hits in 6-consecutive official at-bats, a mark he’ll have a chance to break in his first at-bat at St. Joseph Wednesday.
On top of those numbers, the 5-hits night spiked his already-extraordinary hits total for 2019 to 72 – second-most in Mudcats history behind only the late Steve Martin’s 76 in 2003. In one evening’s work, Eickhoff had blazed – like a “funny car” on the drag strip – past a handful of former Chillicothe standouts who previously had held or shared spots in the team’s all-time top five in hits. With his first hit, he caught previous fifth-place co-holders Logan Moon (2011) and Dominic D’Anna (2008); with his second, he joined speed demons Darian Sandford (2009) and Matty Johnson (2008) in third place. Hit No. 3 of the night and No. 70 of the season pulled him alongside Moon’s fellow 2011 outfielder Cory Ford, a tie that lasted only one inning before the current sensation dropped a run-scoring single into short left field for his 71st hit of 2019.
With the game’s outcome still very much in doubt at 8-6 as he stepped in with one out and the bases empty in the eighth only a home run short of the team’s third “cycle” ever, the versatile Nebraskan, who has started defensively this season at seven of the eight non-pitching positions, came relatively close to joining Martin and catcher Dallas Hord (2008) in the exclusive “cycle” club.
He sliced a high drive down the right-field line that, on a calm night, carried nearly all the way to the outfield wall 320-plus feet from home plate. Although it came down short of the fence, it also landed fair and just out of the reach of the sliding right fielder. By the time the ball came back to the infield, Eickhoff had a third triple – his second standing up – of the game and his fourth 3-bagger during his current 6-at-bats hits streak. His seventh of the season put him one short of Martin’s team record in that category, as well.
“I think he’s grown as a player since we started (the season),” Bounds mused. “He has become even a better hitter than what he was when he showed up, being more selective (of pitches he swings at) and being able to drive” the ball to the gaps and down the lines.
The coach noted that, while Eickhoff’s season-long performance has been nothing short of amazing, more than a little credit for it belongs to Metcalf, who has hit behind him most of the time and has been outstanding with the bat (.383 average, 59 hits, team-best 35 RBI) in his own right. That’s prevented foes from strategically “pitching around” Eickhoff.
“Nolan’s done such a great job behind him all year long. Logan’s getting the (hittable) pitches that Nolan hasn’t” because Metcalf hasn’t had someone consistently producing behind him, the coach rightly notes.
Eickhoff’s stunning showing with the stick – and he also had a very solid night catching – overshadowed the fact that the game was yet another come-from-behind triumph for Chillicothe, the latest in a long list of them this summer.
Despite their fast, fast start and 3-runs lead after an inning, the Mudcats found themselves trailing 5-4 midway through the do-or-die contest, thanks to a 5-runs third segment by the Bombers that ended Duensing’s night.
With Pettit, twice a winner in relief against Sedalia during the regular season, having thrown scoreless ball in the fourth and fifth and Nolan Metcalf’s deep fly ball having pulled the Fish within 5-4 following Eickhoff’s second triple, Chillicothe reclaimed the upper hand against Schmedding in the fifth.
Wargo’s second of three hits found its way through the middle of the diamond, putting Eickhoff in the batter’s box with a chance to do damage. He did, lacing a 1-0 pitch toward the alley in right-center field that sent Wargo scampering toward third base. With the Chillicothe batter already rounding first base and intent on trying for a double, the Bombers’ right fielder had the ball bounce off his glove or arm and roll a couple of feet away. That cost him any chance to cut down Eickhoff at second, but it also opened the door for Bounds to keep Wargo wheeling around third in an attempt to score. The Benid, Ill., infielder’s speed allowed him to easily beat the belated relay from a middle infielder, who’d received the throw from the outfield beyond second base. The Mudcats had shrugged off the earlier loss of their initial 3-runs lead to tie things at 5-5.
A great fielding play by Sedalia third baseman Jake Lufft, who had a superb, if overshadowed, 4-for-5 game at the plate, robbed Metcalf of a double and a run batted in, keeping the runner at second while firing from foul side of third base to get the batter, but that only delayed briefly Chillicothe regaining the lead.
Hunter Johnson (Salem, Ore.), batting .333 over his last nine games, picked a great time for his only hit of this game, bouncing another hit up the middle to send Eickhoff rushing home with the go-ahead run.
When Pettit (4-2) left a pair of Bombers on base for a second inning in a row in the top of the sixth, Chillicothe turned a couple of breaks into two highly-desirable insurance runs in the bottom half.
With one out and none on, the righthanded-swinging Lenhart hit a soft, humpbacked line drive toward the first baseman’s position. However, respecting his speed and potential for trying to bunt his way on, the first baseman was drawn well in toward the infield grass, leaving him able only to watch as the ball, which might have not broken a pane of glass at that speed, landed uncaught for a single on the infield dirt near a first baseman’s normal position.
Wargo then hit a roller over the mound toward second again, but more slowly than in the previous inning. As the thick blades of grass reduced the ball’s speed, the shortstop had to cut in front of second base to intersect it, taking away any chance of trying to force Lenhart out there. Then, just before the shortstop reached it, the ball hit something and deflected into the air. That sent it off the infielder’s left forearm, rather than into his glove, giving Wargo an infield hit. Making things worse for the visitors, the carom off the shortstop’s arm sent the ball rolling toward the vacated second baseman’s position, allowing Lenhart to continue on to third without a throw.
Sedalia finally lifted its starting hurler at that juncture, having allowed 10 hits and six runs in 5-1/3 innings, putting lefthanded reliever Garrett Wheeler in the unenviable spot of having to confront Eickhoff as his first batter. Not surprisingly, the Mudcat won that duel, blooping a ball into shallow left field for a run-scoring single that made the hosts' lead 7-5.
The relief hurler then hit Metcalf with a pitch to load the bases with one out. Although Wheeler recovered to strike out the next two Mudcats, a wild pitch during the latter whiff gave Wargo just enough time to scurry home for a 3-runs Chillicothe bulge after six innings.
Pettit, who Bounds was hoping fervently would make it into the eighth inning, when closer McNellis would be available to enter, fulfilled that hope in an eyeblink. Recovering from the tough, if scoreless, fifth and sixth frames, the Ashland, Ill,, hurler retired the Bombers on three pitches in the seventh. A first-pitch single was followed immediately by a double-play grounder from power-hitting A.J. Gardner before the third delivery also was raked to Wargo at shortstop for the final out.
With the bottom part of the Sedalia lineup due up, that ultra-brief inning paved the way for Bounds to return Pettit to the bump to begin the eighth. Even though he would not be able to finish it, he’d done his job and then some.
After singles by three of the first four batters in the eighth pulled the Bombers within 8-6, McNellis was summoned with the potential go-ahead run and Sedalia leadoff man at the plate. With one pitch and some good luck, the Columbia, Mo., closer had his team headed to the dugout, inducing a first-pitch line drive that second baseman Marcus Gonzalez easily snagged after taking a step or two to his right toward the bag. With the Sedalia runner at second having initially reacted to the contact by mistakenly taking a step or two toward third, Gonzalez had plenty of time to wait for shortstop Wargo to get to second base before making a short throw to complete the rally-blunting, inning-ending twin-killing.
When that happened, it seemed preordained that Chillicothe was to win this one, which it did. McNellis, who has not walked a batter in 17-1/3 innings this season, struck out the side in the top of the ninth, although he did allow a 2-outs single to Gardner – his third hit and the last of the Bombers’ 13.
Neither McNellis nor Bounds was surprised by the closer’s dominating work.
Recalling his pre-game chat with McNellis, the head /pitching coach related, “His exact words were, ‘I feel electric tonight.’”
Statistically, along with Eickhoff’s incandescent night at the plate leading their 15-13 hits advantage, the Mudcats helped produce their third-consecutive victory with a second-straight errorless performance. Sedalia made only one error.
The Chillicothe attack also included Wargo’s 3-hits, 3-runs night, two hits by Chet Merritt, two runs driven in by Johnson. and at least one hit by seven men.
Affirmed Bounds, “I feel like our lineup is very deep. You never know where (a rally) is going to come from.”
With 1-2/3 scoreless innings, McNellis recorded his seventh save – one short of the team record shard by Blake Ring (2003) and Chris Fowler (2004) – and, throwing only 15 pitches, did so with sufficient efficiency to make him available for another inning in the division-title game at St. Joseph, if needed.
While McNellis is one short of the team’s individual record for saves in a season, his work Tuesday produced the team’s 12th save, equaling the composite mark established by the 2012 Mudcats staff.
“He has been nails for us all season long,” praised Bounds.