REELING IN THE YEARS WITH THE CHILLICOTHE MUDCATS: Summer college-level baseball team won two league crowns, went to three NBC World Series from 2002-10
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Part of baseball’s traditional allure has been that, with games at higher levels of competition played on a near-daily basis, there are innumerable occasions of individual and team excellence and accomplishment to be savored.
That constant drumbeat of day-in, day-out competition is a double-edged sword, though, especially over the course of time. The sheer volume of memorable moments, games, and seasons serves to dull the recollection and appreciation of specific moments which, when they happened, seemed exceptional and even unforgettable. Short of having either an eidetic or photographic memory, only the most diehard of fans or persons directly involved with a team can call quickly to mind more than a few.
While the Chillicothe Mudcats baseball team’s 18 seasons of play since their 2002 founding are a relatively-brief slice of the sport’s overall history and local presence, they encompass over 800 games and hundreds of players striving – each time they stepped on the field for a game – to produce skilled play which might not only enhance the team’s prospects of winning that contest, but advance their goal of playing at an even-higher, professional level of competition, as well as entertain fans in the stands.
With the Mudcats’ planned 2020 season scrubbed by concerns over spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, having no new exploits to witness continues to allow for recalling what largely-dimly-recalled experiences the college-level, wood-bat team and its players have generated.
This third in a planned series of reflective pieces on the Fish and their history will tighten the focus. This entry will drill down on games which either won MINK League overall or division titles or came in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
In examining contests which netted the Mudcats’ highest team achievements thus far, the logical starting point is the capture of their first MINK League championship on July 22, 2006.
Having technically clinched the club’s first MINK League title (by virtue of assuring itself of a final-standings tie and owning the tiebreaker advantage over Clarinda) with a 6-1 home win over the Topeka Golden Giants the night before, head coach Keith Vorhoff’s Mudcats make it a clear-cut crown with an 11-3 home thumping of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Grays from Kansas City on that date.
Infielder John Dao drives in three runs and DH Garrett Bass, son of former long-time major league outfielder Kevin Bass, matches that with a 3-runs bomb over the right field fence during a 5-runs seventh that bursts open what had been a 4-1 game. Third baseman Justin Potes is three for four with two RBI as Mudcats bats amply support six scoreless innings from lefthanded starting pitcher Andy Patton.
Three years later to the day – July 22, 2009, the Mudcats find themselves at Sedalia’s Liberty Park stadium, facing the first-year Bombers guided by the Mudcats’ own 2008 head coach “Jud” Kindle in the second game of the inaugural, best-of-3 MINK League championship series.
Having won 7-3 at home the night before, Chillicothe sends its nearly-unhittable ace, righthander Tyler Minto, to the bump, seeking their second league-title clincher. He delivers.
Minto allows only two hits while striking out five over eight innings, not allowing Sedalia a hit after the second inning and retiring the last 13 Bombers batters he faces. While 2008 Mudcats righthander Blake Barber shuts out his former team through seven innings, he finally falters in the top of the eighth, undermined a bit by his fielders.
A fielding error lets outfielder Kyle Standridge reach base and, with two outs, shortstop Bryan Mason singles him to second. Unsung first baseman Justin Shults strokes another 2-outs single to break the scoring ice. After Minto mows down the home team again in the bottom of the eighth, aptly-nicknamed infielder Brian “Fish” Fisher’s leadoff double in the ninth is cashed in later by catcher Jason Dennis’ single and closer Scott Limbocker completes the title-clinching shutout win.
Twelve days later on Aug. 3, in the Mudcats’ first August outing ever, head coach Adam Steyer’s first of two squads posts a victory notable for two more reasons. It is their first-ever triumph in the NBC tourney and comes in their lengthiest game (in number of innings) ever.
Having earned a later-round start in the tourney as league champs, the Fish find the beginning of their debut game delayed a couple of hours by lengthy contests ahead of it. As a result, their clash with the Colorado Sox doesn’t see its first pitch thrown until 11:27 p.m. Despite the Mudcats having a run on the scoreboard by the time the game’s first two batters had been to the plate, the contest’s last delivery won’t be made until 3:34 a.m. Over the course of 4:07, the Mudcats and Sox duel for 15 innings before Chillicothe emerges with a 4-1 triumph.
Mudcats speed merchant Darian Sandford opens the game with a single to center field, steals two of his team-record 50 bases for the season, and darts home on Justin Shults’ infield hit. The 1-0 lead is protected flawlessly by ace Minto through six 2-hits innings, Scott Limbocker in the seventh, and postseason addition Shane Minks in the eighth. However, in the ninth, righthander Minks – chosen the World Series’ top pitcher the year before when he was with the Beatrice (Neb.) team – hits the leadoff man and allows a game-tying single with one out.
Although envisioned to be used as a righthander closer complementing lefty Limbocker, Minks goes on to blank the Coloradoans through the 14th inning, allowing only three hits and the one run while striking out eight over seven innings. A great catch by Standridge in deep center strands the would-be game-winning run at second base in the 14th. With that reprieve, in the 15th, the Mudcats finally score for the first time since the first inning.
Even on the artificial turf infield, Sandford beats out a tap to shortstop for his third hit to open the frame. Bunted to second, he lures the Sox pitcher into a balk, prompting the foe to intentionally walk Tyson Parks to set up a potential inning-ending ground-ball double play. Although late-season addition Toby Davis does hit a grounder, it only produces a forceout at second as Sandford breaks the tie. Standridge then legs out a roller to third and the aptly-nicknamed Brian “Fish” Fisher slices a double inside the right-field line that scores two for a 4-1 lead.
When lefty Richie Mascheri retires the next three Sox after surrendering only Colorado’s sixth hit of the game in the bottom of the 15th, at just past 3:30 a.m., the Chillicothe Mudcats have their first-ever NBC World Series victory. It is the 2009 team’s 32nd of the season, matching the 2008 club’s team record for victories (subsequently surpassed by the 2012 Fish).
Ironically, that late-night and early-morning end time will pale in comparison to what Steyer’s 2010 team experiences in its NBC appearance.
After following its sharp first-round victory over Everett (Wash.) with a late, big-lead-blowing 6-4 loss to Haysville (Kan.) the next afternoon, the Fish find their next game slotted several days later and within the tournament’s “Baseball Around the Clock” promotion in which games are played through the overnight hours, eventually resulting in about 40 consecutive hours of play.
As the long string of games begun the morning of Aug. 5 plays out and the calendar flips to Aug. 6, the Mudcats’ elimination game against the Gunnison (Colo.) Colts finally commences at 2:32 a.m., surpassing the 2009 game against the Colorado Sox for their latest starting time ever by 3:05.
Perhaps owing to both the time of night and the hangover from the blown game three days earlier, the contest ends as a lethargic, season-halting 6-1 that thankfully only lasts 2:11. Still, the 4:43 a.m. denouement also surpasses the preceding year’s contest for the latest Fish finish.
To reach that 2010 NBC tourney, the Mudcats repeated as MINK League North champs, which they clinched at their “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium home on July 22, 2010.
Needing – with the rival St. Joseph Mustangs only a game behind – to defeat the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s to clinch the title and assure themselves of one of the league’s two automatic bids to the prestigious NBC event, the Mudcats score only one run, but it’s a dandy and all they need.
With pitcher/infielder Cory Trudell toeing the rubber in dominant fashion, they blank the Iowans only six hits with 11 strikeouts through nine innings, sending the contest to the bottom of the ninth in a scoreless deadlock. Then, with two outs and the bases full, designated hitter Steve Martin – also the team’s “closer” as a pitcher – delivers the pennant-clinching 1-0 triumph by grounding the first pitch to him into left field to score Casey Solem. The Mudcats’ furious finishing kick – eight victories in their final nine league games, beginning with an historic tripleheader sweep – allows them to nose out St. Joseph for the North crown.
Ten days later on Aug. 1, 2010, for a second-straight year, the Fish start the organization’s third appearance in the NBC World Series with success.
Tall righthander Sean Potter’s masterful 4-hits shutout of the Everett (Wash.) Merchants paces a 7-0 victory. A 2-runs single in the top of the second inning by postseason addition Jake Brown puts the only runs Potter will require on the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium scoreboard, but Louie Templeton tacks on a 2-runs triple two batters later and finishes with three RBI.
The victory puts the 2010 team’s wins total at 30, making it 3-consecutive years the Fish have posted 30 or more conquests, a total reached only once (2012) since. However, because – also like the previous year – they drop their next two games, the club settles for a final mark of 30-20.
Playing in the tourney’s “prime-time” game the following evening, the Mudcats lose their second-round game by a ninth-inning run for the second year in a row.
After Martin’s 2-runs homer over the left field wall – his fifth blast after joining the club in late June – in the bottom of the sixth gives Chillicothe a 4-3 lead over the Haysville (Kan.) Heat, he comes in to pitch in relief in the seventh and, after stranding the tying run at third then, gives up a 2-outs, 2-runs homer in the eighth that puts the Heat ahead. He surrenders another run in the top of the ninth and a budding Mudcats rally in the ninth fizzles as the Kansas team prevails, 6-4. The “Baseball Around the Clock” overnight loss three nights later then ends the season.
The 2009 Mudcats clinched the MINK League’s inaugural North Division crown and the organization’s second trip to the NBC tournament with a 12-innings 2-1 thriller at St. Joseph on July 17.
Tied 1-1 in the top of the 12th, J.L. Jones draws a leadoff walk. As he steals second base with one out, the throw goes into the outfield and Jones takes third. After his easy foul popup is dropped, Kyle Standridge sends the next pitch into short center field for the tiebreaking single. Limbocker completes a sterling 4-2/3 innings of scoreless relief behind Mascheri’s strong start with a 1-2-3 bottom of the 12th and the Mudcats punch their ticket to both the LCS and World Series.
While the 2006 club, in Vorhoff’s first of two years in charge, made the Mudcats’ first appearance in the NBC World Series, it lasted less than 24 hours.
On July 29, 2006, just as would happen twice in 2009 and again in the second round in 2010, the Mudcats build an early lead, but don’t make it stand up and fall 12-6 to the Nevada (Mo.) Griffons.
Future big leaguer Caleb Joseph’s RBI single in the second inning puts the Fish ahead 1-0, Mitchell Haynes’ run-scoring groundout in third adds to the lead, and Landon Hernandez’s run-scoring hit and another Haynes RBI ground ball make it 4-0, Mudcats, in the top of the fourth inning.
However, starting pitcher Charlie Soukup fades quickly in the middle innings of the night game and, with a 3-runs fifth, the Griffons tie it at 4-4. Haynes’ third RBI of the game – this time on a single in the top of the sixth – restores the Mudcats to the lead, but it is their last. Nevada scores twice in the bottom half to move in front, then plates three runs each in the seventh and eighth to win going away.
Hernandez ends the night four for four with two runs batted in and goes two for three in the following day’s 13-1 elimination loss to Enid, Okla., to finish the Series six for seven.
Probably the Mudcats’ most-painful postseason loss ever comes on a very windy Aug. 7, 2009, afternoon when – three days after their marathon, first-ever World Series win, the team blows a 5-0 lead after seven innings and loses 6-5 to the Valley Center (Kan.) Diamond Dawgs.
After future major leaguer Mike Mariot – a postseason addition from Beatrice’s MINK League team – twirls seven innings of 5-hits, shutout ball and usually-light-hitting catcher Jason Dennis drives in three runs with a pair of hits, multiple relievers and the defense falter amid ill-fated coaching decisions. The result is two Dawgs runs in the eighth inning and four after Valley Center had two outs and no one aboard in the ninth.
Rather than getting the following day off with the would-be win, the crushing loss leads to the Mudcats’ losers’-bracket game being scheduled for 8 a.m. the next morning. The Aug. 8 playing date is the latest ever for the organization and, with the team no longer choosing to participate in the NBC event, that figures to stay unchanged.
Despite the very early start, the Mudcats ride sturdy starter Matt Lackner’s typical strong work to a 3-1 lead through 5-1/2 innings. Down 1-0 in the top of the sixth, Parks ties it with a single and, after a Davis single, Troconis drives a hit to center field that plates two runs. However, Lackner unexpectedly sags, surrendering two runs in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game and a walk and RBI single in the seventh as Crestwood (Ill.) comes back to win, 4-3.
That closes the book on the Mudcats’ season, leaving them 32-17 – the same record the 2008 club had posted.
(In the next installment in this series, a recollection of 2002-10 games that produced remarkable and historic individual and team performances will be featured.)