St. Joseph shellacks Chillicothe hurlers for eight runs in first on way to 17-2 North Division title clash Wednesday, July 24, 2019
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — In statistical analysis, data far removed from the usual or common information grouping generated by the situation being studied is characterized as an “outlier,” located far outside the norm.
In those sports which have long seasons – both chronologically and in the number of contests they have, the physical and psychological challenges of trying to perform at or near one’s peak that often and that repetitively, there always are a few “blowouts” –outlier games in which the outcome is decided by a wide margin and often is determined in the early stages of the game or match.
Playing just over 40 times this summer, the 2019 Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats college-level baseball team competed often enough that the laws of probability favored them having a few such games. Unfortunately for the Fish, after having a couple – one a runaway win and another a decisive loss – during the regular season, one of those “outliers” knocked them out of the MINK League playoff Wednesday night (July 24), dropping on them like a ton of bricks as they sought to win the North Division championship.
The St. Joseph Mustangs, owners of a 35-10 regular-season record, including a North Division-best 29-8 league ledger, pummelled the Mudcats for eight first-inning runs at Phil Welch Stadium and coasted on to a 17-2 drubbing of Chillicothe.
“It was unfortunate we got off to the start we did,” Caleb Bounds, his second summer as Mudcats head coach ended, understated.
The one-sided result terminated an outstanding Mudcats’ 2019 season with a final record of 26-16, percentage-wise, one of the best in the organization’s 18-years history. Chillicothe posted the second-best record in the league behind St. Joseph, which moved on to take on the Ozark Generals in the league’s championship series Thursday through Saturday.
Affirmed the Mudcats coach, “I’m proud of these guys. They’ve been amazing for us all season.”
Just as occurred in their win at St. Joseph the previous Saturday, the Mudcats had a first-inning scoring chance aided by a Mustangs error. Whereas they cashed in for a run in the first in that one and followed it by utilizing another error to score seven times in the second inning to lead 8-0, this time they stranded Tate Wargo after he reached second on a throwing error on his ground ball to shortstop.
By the time they had a second chance, they were staring at an 8-0 deficit of their own.
The very first pitch Chillicothe starting pitcher Tyler Venditti (1-5) was stroked sharply on the ground through the middle of the diamond by Jackson Dierenfeldt for the game’s first hit. The next struck Jack Wagner, putting two runners aboard for the hefty heart of the Ponies’ order.
Things got worse from there. Very quickly.
The count on the next batter, Jordan Maxson, went to 3-1 before a close pitch was called strike two as the batter took a step or two toward first base, thinking he’d walked. On the following, 3-2 delivery, he was happy to run – and run and run.
Making solid contact with Venditti’s pitch, Maxson sent it high and deep toward straightaway center field – not that Chillicothe center fielder Marty Lenhart knew it. With the descending, early-evening sun directly behind home plate, but still shining over the grandstands roof onto about three-fourths of the diamond, as the ball ascended, Lenhart lost sight of it.
Reading its quick elevation while still silhouetted against the dark background of the stands as it came off the bat, the outfielder knew the ball was going high into the air. Taking a quick guess, he thought the ball might turn into a popup to shallow or medium center and started in at a lope, hoping to regain his tracking of the ball as he did.
He had guessed wrong, however. While he moved toward the infield, the ball carried and carried toward the center field wall, finally landing at the base of it – 400 feet from home plate – and with no defensive player within 100 feet of it.
Even as Lenhart and corner outfielders Brandan Settles and Blaine Ray chased toward it, Maxson was rounding second base, obviously en route to circling the bases on a 3-runs, inside-the-park home run.
The sudden 3-0 lead lasted only two more pitches.
After fouling off the first pitch he saw, lefthanded-hitting designated hitter Karl Koerper also got under a pitch and sent it very high, only to right field, where the fence is barely 300 feet away from the plate, not that that made a difference. The majestic drive from the player who shared the league lead in regular-season roundtrippers, sailed high and far over the fence and cleared the “Hy-Vee Party Deck” behind it for Koerper’s 11th home run of the season. After four batters, the Mudcats trailed 4-0.
Even as Chillicothe lefthander Brandan Van Buren, who Bounds had disclosed the night before would his early-relief option as needed, worked to get ready in the bullpen, St. Joseph continued to bedevil the Mudcats’ starting hurler.
Each of the next two batters worked the count full, then saw ball four pass by, making it six batters in a row reaching base to start the first inning.
The string ended there, but not with Venditti on the hill. Following the walk to the sixth batter, he was lifted for Van Buren as Bounds hoped to stop the bleeding.
The move momentarily bore fruit as Van Buren got Chillicothean Derek Hussey to fly out to left field. However, the ball was deep enough that both baserunners tagged up and advanced.
That advancement allowed both to score on Max Mircovich’s hit to right-center, closing the book on Venditti with six runs allowed. It did not close the book on the Mustangs’ first-inning scoring, though.
Hampton Hudson powered a drive up the alley in deep right-center field for a RBI triple and Dierenfeldt, in his second plate appearance of the opening frame, sent a fly ball to center field that easily plated Hudson to cap an 8-runs first frame for the favored hosts.
“We just couldn’t get it stopped,” Hounds conceded. “It was tough.”
Despite that massive mountain of runs debt, the Mudcats had reason not to despair.
They knew they had trailed St. Joseph 7-0 at Phil Welch Stadium after two innings of their season opener not quite two months earlier and had come back to be tied, 7-7, in the eighth before losing 8-7 on a walk-off hit in the ninth.
They also remembered all too well that their own 8-0 lead five nights before shrank to 9-7 by game’s end and the Mustangs had ended the game with the possible tying runs on base.
When big righthander Cristhian Cardona, already the Fish’s third pitcher of the proceedings, turned in a scoreless second inning, even though the gap still was eight runs, the visitors’ hope persisted, but by the close of the third, it essentially was gone.
An inning-opening error on a tough fielding play was followed by walks to four of the next five batters as the gap grew into double digits. A 2-runs single by Terrance Spurlin expanded the spread to 13-0 and ended Cardona’s stint on the mound.
Eventually, seven hurlers would be used by the Mudcats, with each of the first four surrendering multiple runs in two or fewer innings of work. With the game out of hand late and St. Joseph not pressing the issue to further its 17-runs stranglehold after a 4-runs fifth, Chandler Griggs, Kale Harris, and Collin Chalmers each posted a scoreless inning or more to finish the game.
While the Mudcats did reach Bednar for eight hits, including three doubles, through the first eight innings, they were spaced out and never were more than two in an inning.
Finally, in the ninth, after an error let Chet Merritt reach leading off, outfielder Jack Grace laid final claim to the team’s season leadership in home runs by blasting his sixth, a drive high over the fence in straightaway left.
“I love that they fought to the end. They didn’t give up,” Bounds said with pride.
Statistically, somewhat incredibly for a 17=2 game, the beaten Fish actually matched the Mustangs hit for hit, each reaping 10. Each club also made two errors.
“Our guys competed all night,” Bounds commended.
The major differences, though, were the hosts’ three home runs to Chillicothe’s one and St. Joseph receiving a shocking 13 bases on balls and three hit batsmen from a Chillicothe staff that, after last year’s edition had major troubles in that area, had significantly improved in “free bases” awarded this summer. After handing out 335 combined walks and hit by pitches in 2018, the Fish entered Wednesday’s division-title game with just under 250 (246).
Individually in Wednesday’s division final, Maxson’s 2-for-4 game with the three runs batted in from the sun-aided inside-the-park home run and two runs score paced the Ponies. In fact, he was the only St. Joseph batter to have more than one hit. Chillicothean Hussey went one for three with a walk and a run scored.
The Mudcats had 2-hits games from Hunter Johnson, Chet Merritt, and Nolan Metcalf and Grace’s 2-runs homer, which snapped the tie with Metcalf for tops on the ’19 team. Metcalf’s pair of singles left him with 59 hits on the summer, ninth-most in team history.
Held hitless in five at-bats in the team’s finale, Logan Eickhoff settled for 72 hits, second-most to the late Steve Martin’s 76 in 2003 in team history. He also was left with 23 multi-hits games this year, tying Martin and Matty Johnson (2008) for most ever in that statistical category.
When retired on a routine fly ball to Hussey in the first inning at St. Joe, the North Central Missouri College player had his team-record-tying string of hits in six consecutive at-bats snapped.
The La Vista, Neb., resident ended his season with a sensational .416 batting average, only the fourth Mudcats regular ever to hit .400 or higher for a season. The only hitters with higher season averages have been the late Martin (.418) and record-holder Paul Trenhaile’s .434 mark in 2013.
Grace’s half-dozen circuit clouts this season tie him with Edgar Ramirez (2005) and Dominic D’Anna (2008) for third-most in a season in team history. Jason Clark (2003) and Zach Esquerra (2011) share the Mudcats record with nine each.
Under the radar, the 2019 Chillicothe team posted the highest runs-per-game average in team annals, plating 302 in 41 games, an average of 7.37. The 2013 team which posted the most Mudcats runs ever – 317 – did so in 47 games, averaging “only” 6.74 a contest.