League's batting champ, hits leader shares award with Sedalia player; Mudcats closer McNellis third in 'Pitcher of Year' vote
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — A 2019 season which, without advance notoriety, began auspiciously for Chillicothe Mudcat Logan Eickhoff and steadily developed into one of historic proportions in the team’s 18-years history on Sunday became an apparently-unprecedented award-winning one for the Nebraskan who came to the team via Trenton’s North Central Missouri College Pirates.
The right-handed batter, whose superb offensive performance virtually from start to finish was a foundational piece of the team’s summer-long success, on Sunday was revealed in an e-mail from the MINK League office as the college-level, wood-bat baseball league’s co-Player of the Year.
The league’s batting champion and leader (in league games) in hits, multi-hits games, at-bats, singles, and triples shares the award with outfielder A.J. Gardner of the Sedalia Bombers, the league leader in home runs who also hit a lofty .379.
“I am very proud of him and he was very deserving of this award,” Caleb Bounds, Chillicothe head coach, states of Eickhoff. “He was the most consistent hitter in the league all season long.”
Voting was done by one representative of each of the league’s eight teams. Each team nominated one player for the award. Although it was not specified in the notice of the results of the balloting as being the case, traditionally in such voting by interested parties, a voter directly involved in a team may not cast a ballot for a member of that team.
Eickhoff and Gardner each received three votes with outfielder Zack Ehlen of Joplin getting the other two.
The choice for league Pitcher of the Year was Ozark Generals righthander Tyson Campbell by a 4-3 margin over righthander Cam Bednar of newly-crowned league champion St. Joseph. Chillicothe relief pitcher Jack McNellis was the only one of the other six nominees to receive a vote, placing him third after an outstanding performance as the Mudcats’ closer.
“He (was) ‘nails’ for us all season long,” Bounds says of the Columbia, Mo., resident just before the season’s end.
Eickhoff’s statistics were superlative, in comparison to both other players in the league this year and to all Mudcats ever.
While the player and pitcher of the year voting considered only performances in league competition – in which the La Vista, Neb., product excelled, as well, Eickhoff’s season-total numbers (including two league playoff games and three non-league outings) were even more phenomenal. In sum, they arguably were the second-best in team history behind only the 2003 numbers posted by late outfielder Steve Martin in the Mudcats’ second-ever season.
Eickhoff’s overall final batting average of .416 ranks behind only Paul Trenhaile’s 2013 team record of .434 and Martin’s .418. Astoundingly, after a combined 1-for-9 showing in consecutive July 13-14 games dropped his average from .401 to .392, the NCMC sophomore-to-be torched pitchers for 16 hits in 25 at-bats over the next five games. Having two hits in one contest, three in three more, and five in the other in that season-closing stretch, he spiked his average to .428 before an 0-for-5 finale in the North Division championship game at St. Joseph reduced it to its final level.
“Hitting .400 in a full season is truly amazing at any level,” lauds Bounds.
That nearly-unthinkable torrid run took him from barely cracking the Mudcats’ all=time “top 10” in hits in a season to a final total of 72, a mere four shy of Martin’s record total which for many years had increasingly seem unapproachable. The closest any Fish had come in the intervening 15 years had been outfielder Cory Ford’s 70 hits in 2011.
Eickhoff’s 72 overall hits were seven more than any other MINK leaguer and his 62 in league play surpassed the same runnerup (Jackson Dierenfeldt of St. Joseph) by five.
With his late surge, the Mudcat totaled 23 multi-hits games for the summer – the same team-record number posted by Martin and by Matty Johnson in 2008. The ’08 team played 49 games and the ’03 club 48, compared to the mere 41 this year’s edition had.
Although Eickhoff’s 62 league hits included a respectable 14 for extra bases, he and Dierenfeldt shared the league lead in singles with 48 apiece. Half of the Mudcat’s 10 non-league/playoffs hits were for extra bases, while only one of the Mustang’s eight was.
While Eickhoff shared – with three others, including Chillicothean Derek Hussey of the league-champion Mustangs – the lead in triples hit in league play (four), his team-record-setting three triples in Chillicothe’s playoff win over Sedalia July 23 made him the MINK leader overall with seven, two more than runnerup Hussey.
Marvels the Mudcats head coach, “I have never seen a kid ‘find as many barrels’ (make solid contact off the barrel of his bat) as he did.
“It was like he was hot all season long.”
Although not trumpeted by Bounds or team officials prior to the season as a potential budding star or likely team linchpin, the versatile Nebraska player quickly announced himself with a 4-for-4, 3-RBI game at St. Joseph in the Mudcats’ season opener, a performance he backed up with a 2-for-4 home opener two nights later. From that rocket-fueled start, his batting average ended the night over .400 for all except six nights of the nearly-2-months season, sitting at its nadir at .364 after game No. 5.
“Logan was great all season long,” Bounds affirms.
As noted, while no one hit more singles in league action, he was no so-called “Punch-and-Judy” hitter, although he never managed to register a home run, despite a few close calls. With his 19 extra-base hits (12 doubles, seven triples) in all games, he owned a very respectable .566 slugging percentage – eighth-highest among league regulars – and an excellent on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) rate of 1.018, 11th-best among full-time players.
Underlining that he was not just an offensive factor with a bat in his hand, the 6’, 165-pounder was one of merely 22 league players who stole at least 10 bases. His total of 11 in 13 attempts tied him for 18th-most and his success rate of .846 was 16th-best among those with double-digits theft totals.
For all of his magnificent performance with a bat in his hand and his ability to chip in to the team cause with his feet, as well, the Mudcat standout not only wasn’t a defensive liability by any stretch of the imagination, but was a positive factor there with his unparalleled versatility which allowed Bounds to keep his bat in the lineup even while either giving regulars a rest or getting or keeping a teammate with a hot bat in the lineup.
Although considered mostly an outfielder prior to the season, Eickhoff took the term “versatility” to the extreme, not only playing at seven different non-pitcher defensive positions (every position except first base), but starting at least twice at each of those seven, while also serving as designated hitter on occasion.
While not flawless at the various defensive outposts, neither was the North Central Missouri College player a liability at any of them, committing only six errors in 171 chances.
His performance when used behind the plate was especially outstanding and timely as he shared time with fellow stalwart Nolan Metcalf both prior to the mid-June arrival of Brady Welch and then after illness forced Welch to end his season prematurely prior to the final two weeks of action.
In nearly 77 innings catching, he was not charged with any errors out of 91 fielding chances and was cited for only three passed balls, a total virtually the same (prorated for number of innings played) as Metcalf and much superior to Welch’s.
“He started in multiple positions for us this season and was a vital part to our success” by doing so, compliments Bounds.
No other previous Mudcat ever has come close to being used at so many positions so often. Given that first base – while it can be played with tremendous skill and impact – is regarded by many as the least-challenging fielding position to man, had Bounds chosen to do so, he easily could have started his star there some, as well, without fear. Who knows? If Eickhoff follows through on what Bounds told the C-T at season’s end last week was his intent to return to play for the Mudcats next summer – a play many factors could lead to not coming to fruition, the team might well consider having a pre-planned attendance-promotion “night” next summer – as some major league teams have done in the now-rather-distant past – on which Eickhoff plays all nine defensive positions in the same game.
In placing third in the MINK League “Pitcher of the Year” voting, Chillicothe righthander McNellis was recognized for one of the finest summers any Mudcats reliever – particularly one cast in the role of “closer” – has produced, including setting a record or two individually and helping tie a team mark.
The team’s leader in saves with seven – prevented from an eighth only by receiving credit for a late-season win because a preceding reliever did not pitch well enough to deserve a win he could have had, the husky hard thrower came up one shy of matching the team record of eight, set by Blake Ring in 2003 and equaled by Chris Fowler the next year.
Behind McNellis’ sturdy lead, though, this summer’s Chillicothe bullpen did post a team-record-tying 12 saves.
The Mudcats’ closer also won two games, while losing only one, while throwing 17-1/3 innings across 19 appearances.
He allowed only four runs – three earned – and struck out 28 in those 19 outings, resulting in a 1.55 earned run average that led the club. Barely averaging one baserunner allowed per inning, he had an excellent 1.61 ratio of strikeouts to inning pitched. His 19 appearances tie for third-most in team history.
Most extraordinarily, he became the first Mudcats pitcher ever to appear in five or more games in a season not to have issued a base on balls. While his innings-pitched total falls short of the threshold of a minimum of 20 innings pitched for which the team’s unofficial “records book” ranks pitchers for the best “walks-to-innings pitched” ratio in team history, McNellis’ goose egg in the walks column bests any such rate any prior Chillicothe starter or reliever previously has posted and his infinite ratio of strikeouts to walks dwarfs that achieved by any previous Fish flinger.
With Ring (4.50) and Fowler (6.91) having had multiple outings in which they surrendered multiple runs, McNellis’ showing this summer clearly ranks above theirs, even though with one less save.
His 2019 effort probably contends with spot starter/middle/bridge reliever Aaron Kleekamp’s 2008 season (0.53 ERA in 34 innings with only 14 hits allowed and 51 strikeouts) and 2010 closer/designated hitter Steve Martin’s (seven saves, 1.82 ERA in 24-1/3 innings with only nine hits and five total runs allowed) as the second-best seasons ever by a Chillicothe reliever.
The best, almost certainly, was in 2009. Lefthander Scott Limbocker did not allow any earned runs (only five total – four of them in his final outing in a National Baseball Congress World Series loss) and a mere 10 hits in 21-2/3 innings over 13 appearances. Because that year’s team won many times by wide margins, Limbocker only gained credit for four saves.