REELING IN THE YEARS WITH THE CHILLICOTHE MUDCATS: Following team's first-ever losing year in his first season as coach, Bounds guided turnaround
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Having never had a losing season through their first 15 years of summertime, college-level baseball play, the Chillicothe Mudcats entered 2017 having had only one of their previous nine campaigns conclude with the team’s final record less than five games over the .500 (break-even) mark.
When new head coach Jack Winters, with his northeastern United States background and base, was hired to guide the 2017 club, it marked a dramatic shift and broadening in the geographic area being mined for talent.
While well-established connections with several regional, midwestern, and western schools continued to be sources for talent, Winter used his northeastern and eastern seaboard contacts to supplement them with players from those areas to a degree the organization – long reliant on players from midwest, southern, and southwestern colleges and universities for the bulk of the Mudcats rosters – had not previously approached.
When Winters’ squad bounced back from losing its debut in extra innings at home to ring up victories in 10 of its next 11 outings, it had matched the team’s best-ever mark (10-2) through 12 contests, equaling the blazing start of Brad Phillips’ inaugural club in 2004.
With a 6-2 MINK League record at that early point, as well, it looked like a first league title since 2009 and the posting of at least 29 wins for a seventh time in 10 years wer in the offing and a first 30-wins campaign since the record-setting 33-21 2012 season was a strong possibility.
However, from that auspicious beginning, the Mudcats’ on-field fortunes unexpectedly began an historic plunge that not only dragged the 2017 team’s final record down to a barely-above-.500 24-22, but extended through 2018, when the organization’s distinction of never having had a losing ledger disappeared.
From that 10-2 mark on June 16, the 2017 squad sank to only 13-11 by June 29. A couple of very brief stretches of success three times lifted the team to five games over .500 over the final four weeks of play, but it sat at that same 2-over level more often (five times), including at season’s end when the club dropped its last three contests.
The results malaise carried over to 2018 when Caleb Bounds, the former Mudcats pitcher and team record-holder for career wins (12), was handed the reins as head coach.
His first team, unexpectedly hit by pitching staff injuries even before the season began, stumbled from the starting gate 1-4, stood an all-time-worst 2-8 after 10 games, and – despite a 6-2 flurry at season’s windup – concluded the season 19-26.
However, even with the Fish having plunged to a composite 33-46 record since that record-matching start to 2017 and having had their initial losing year, Bounds was offered a chance at a “do-over” a year ago and made very good use of it.
Switching from the less-aggressive offensive approach he’d tried in his first season as head coach, Bounds got the 2019 club off to an encouraging 7-3 start and – despite still=subpar pitching – stayed in the battle for the MINK League North Division title right to the end before finishing second to eventual league champion St. Joseph.
By going 23-14 in league play – and 25-15 overall – during the regular season, the Mudcats qualified for the league playoffs for the first time in nine years and gained their first postseason triumph since 2010 before concluding their bounce-back campaign at 26-16.
Thanks to this summer’s coronavirus pandemic, what would have been Bounds’ third season in charge – joining his former head coach Tai Mitchell as the only head coaches to lead the Fish for three seasons – has been delayed until (hopefully) 2021.
Today’s final chronological (by date, not year) recap of Mudcats baseball history reexamines individual and team moments of distinction from the team’s three most-recent summers.
The opener of former Mudcats pitcher Caleb Bounds’ career as head coach is a 6-4 non-league loss to the Albert Lea Lakers from Minnesota. The 2018 Mudcats, who will experience their first-ever losing season, manage only two hits and strike out 14 times on their way to a team record for the highest strikeout rate per game in team history (344 in 45 games).
On the heels of their first-ever losing season and with Bounds back at the helm, the 2019 Mudcats’ campaign begins painfully, yet promisingly, with a 7-6 loss at St. Joseph. Starting pitcher Noah McClanahan somehow breaks his pitching elbow while surrendering six hits and five runs in the first inning. He is lifted after the leadoff batter in the second also gets a hit and is through for the season. However, the Mudcats battle their way back against the eventual MINK League champions and tie the game at 6-6 in the eighth inning before the Mustangs prevail 7-6 on a walk-off single that plates an unearned run. Foreshadowing the season to come, versatile Fish Logan Eickhoff, who’ll eventually start at seven positions, goes 4-4 and drives in three runs on his way to batting over .400, collecting 72 hits in only 42 team games, and being voted by league representatives as MINK League co-offensive player of the year.
2017 Mudcats head coach Jack Winters sees his coaching debut in Chillicothe result in a defeat, 6-5 in 10 innings at Clarinda, Iowa. Hinting at his hefty run production (42 RBI, second-most ever to Travis Dunlap’s 45 in 2003), Justin Blasinski has a single, double, and three RBI.
With the league having adopted a 10-runs-lead rule for 9-innings games, the 2018 Mudcats become the first team to put it into effect as they stun visiting Sedalia 14-4 in seven after dropping Bounds’ first two games as coach. A 10-runs third inning sets up the abbreviated win, which sees Nate Gawelko and Dalton Robison each drive in three runs.
Winters’ first win in his only summer as head coach comes on the road at new league member Jefferson City. Blasinski goes 4-5 with two more RBI and Chris Peres and Anthony Lantigua have three hits each. Ramger Iglesias drives in three as the 2017 club uses a 12-6 victory to get in the “wins” column.
A 10-5 home loss to Sedalia in the fourth game of the season ultimately proves to be the 2018 team’s last chance to reach the .500 mark, dropping its record to 1-3. Already down 4-0 as they bat for the first time in the game, the Mudcats get a leadoff HR in their half of the first inning from Nico Burgarello – only the second time in team history its first batter in a home game has gone deep.
The 2019 Mudcats establish a new team record for hits in a game, walloping 23 in a 17-1 rout of host Clarinda. Nolan Metcalf signals the big year with the bat he’ll have by going 4-5 with two doubles and three runs. Six players drive in two runs apiece.
Brice Bisenius homers, triples, scores three times, and is one of four Fish to amass three RBI each in a 15-7 home win over Cassville in 2017.
Blasinski and Bisenius each drive in four runs with the former ripping four hits in a 17-4 romp past the KC Monarchs Ban Johnson team at Liberty. Blasinski ends the day with nine RBI through the 2017 club’s first five games. The easy non-league win starts an 8-games winning streak that equals the third-longest in Mudcats history.
The second-longest game (in number of innings) in Mudcats history goes in the “wins” column as the Fish outlast host Ozark 10-8 in 14 innings. Tied 7-7 after 13, the visitors go ahead on a passed ball and subsequently are handed two bases-full walks.
Blasinski’s scorching-hot start continues as the Mudcats overcome allowing seven unearned runs to beat visiting Nevada 12-10. Down 10-6 going to the bottom of the eighth, the Mudcats tie it with Blasinski’s 2-RBI single and go on to add two more runs. Blasinski’s 3-5, 4-RBI game, including a 2-runs HR in the first inning, gives him 13 RBI in his first six games.
Held to one hit through seven innings, the 2019 Mudcats score three times in the eighth and twice in the ninth to force guest Jeff City to extra innings, tied 5-5. Neither side scores again until the 13th when the Renegades reach reliever Anthony Rogers – in his fourth inning of work – for three hits and three runs. However, the Fish add to their early reputation for late rallies and walk-off wins. Two hits, two walks, a hit batsman, and Chet Merritt’s infield hit tie the game in the bottom half – all without an out being made. The next batter is due to be Chandler Griggs, a pitcher who’d been sent to play left field in the 11th inning when Bounds ran out of available position players. Instead, the coach selects another pitcher, Tyler Venditti, to pinch-hit for Griggs. The move works when Venditti hits a shallow fly ball to right-center field which requires a diving catch. That allows the runner at third base time to tag and score the game-winner in a 9-8 triumph.
After Merritt’s 2-runs HR at Nevada gives the ’19 Mudcats an 8-7 lead after eight innings, Metcalf pounds a 3-runs shot over the fence in the ninth as the Fish rally late again to win, 11-8.
Having had only one game in their first 16 seasons in which they and the opponent combined to score at least 30 runs – that being a 19-13 loss to Clarinda the year before, the 2018 Mudcats win the first of back-to-back 30-runs games, 16-14 in 11 innings at Joplin’s Joe Becker Stadium. Having blown a 9-4 lead, the Mudcats score four times in the top of the ninth – highlighted by Chillicothean Derek Hussey’s 2-runs HR – to take a 13-10 advantage. However, the Outlaws get a 3-runs shot in their half to send the game to extra innings. Each club scores once in the 10th before Gaven Strobel’s second HR of the game in the 11th again puts Chillicothe in front. A 2-outs single scores Peyton Cormane after he steals two of his team-record-tying four bases for an insurance run. Strobel finishes 4-5 with two HR, two doubles, four runs, and three RBI.
Following their own 16-14, 11-innings win at Joplin the day before, the 2018 Mudcats lose by the same score a day later when the host Outlaws pound six balls over the friendly Becker Stadium fences – the most Mudcats pitchers ever have allowed in one game. Joplin goes through its batting order twice while ripping four HRs and scoring 13 times in the third inning. Remarkably, however, the Mudcats respond to the 13-1 deficit with three runs in the fifth – including Cormane’s 2-runs HR, two runs in the sixth, and seven tallies on nine hits in the seventh to close to within 15-14. Hussey’s and Andrew Williams’ 2-RBI doubles and Gawelko’s 2-RBI triple spice the big seventh inning. However, after leaving Gawelko at third base with the potential tying run, the Fish go hitless the last two innings and, when Joplin connects for its sixth long ball, loses 16-14.
Brice Bisenius has two hits and three more RBI – giving him 14 in his first 10 games – as the 2017 Mudcats beat Cassville for a second-straight night, 7-1.
RHP Trae Brownell holds host Jefferson City hitless for the first six innings and the 2018 Mudcats mesh a mere four hits with six walks and four hit batsmen to pick up a 5-2 win. Fish designated hitter Jack Cavanaugh doesn’t hit at all in four plate appearances, yet scores three runs. He receives two walks and twice is plunked in a 0-0 night.
In a 3-1 victory over host Ozark that highlights the benefit of the aggressive baserunning mindset head coach Bounds is encouraging in his second season at the helm and salvages a 2019 doubleheader split, outfielder Blaine Ray provides what proves to be the deciding run in the second inning when he becomes the only Mudcat ever to steal three bases in an inning. Reaching on a leadoff error, he swipes second and third bases before – with Merritt on at first – he dashes home on the back-end of a successful double-steal.
One of the most-powerful offensive displays in team history occurs at hitter-friendly Meador Park Stadium in Springfield in 2019 when OF Jack Grace “leaves the yard” in three of his first four plate appearances against Ozark. He’ll get two more at-bats in the 17-9 win to try to surpass Travis Dunlap (2003) and Zach Esquerra (2011) and become the first Fish ever to hit four HRs in a game, but Grace grounds out and pops up. He finishes with six RBI and 13 total bases, both second-most in team history. Team-wise, a stunning 13 of the Mudcats’ 17 hits go for extra bases, a new team record, surpassing the 11 the 2003 team had when it hit a record nine HRs and added two doubles in another game at Springfield against the Springfield Slashers.
A 7-games winning streak technically preserved when the previous night’s home game against Clarinda is suspended, due to rain, with the A’s leading 15-13 in the top of the ninth inning, the 2017 Mudcats pick up an eighth victory in a row with a Dawsen Bacho-led 9-5 triumph at Joplin. Catcher Bacho drives in five runs with a double, two singles, and a walk. With the suspended game not yet a win or loss (eventually it would be a loss), the Mudcats’ victory at Joplin moves their early record to 10-2, matching the organization’s best mark through 12 contests.
Having squandered an 8-3 eighth-inning lead at Jefferson City, the 2018 Mudcats continue their hottest mini-stretch of the season (four wins in five games) by posting six runs in the top of the 10th inning to win, 14-8. After being the team’s DH at the games start, Nate Gawelko makes his second pitching appearance in as many days with a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th that gives him 9-consecutive batters faced and retired. Chillicothean Derek Hussey bruises Renegades hurling with a 4-6 night that includes a double, two RBI, four runs scored, two steals, and a hit by pitch. Strobel adds a double, triple, and three RBI.
Chris Peres’ four RBI help the 2017 Mudcats build a 10-4 mid-game lead at Nevada, but they need a scoreless eighth inning from Dan Naif and ninth from Austin Gussman to hold on, 10-7. For lefty Gussman, it is his sixth save in only the team’s 22nd game, leaving him a mere two shy of the team record with almost a month to go in the season. However, he won’t get any more while losing three times in July.
In a game eventually pivotal to the 2019 Mudcats claiming second place in the MINK League’s North Division, ahead of Sedalia, the Fish respond to a 7-runs Bombers seventh inning that leaves the Mudcats down 7-2 with three runs each in the eighth and ninth to pull out an 8-7 verdict. In the ninth, a wild throw to third on a 1-out double-steal attempt lets Dom Trevino score the tying run and advances Nolan Metcalf to third base. Chet Merritt’s single to center then puts the Mudcats in front and Brock Pettit completes 2-1/3 innings of scoreless relief pitching to pick up his second of four wins.
Halting a 3-9 plunge that had brought them to 13-11 for the year, the 2017 Mudcats sweep a home pair from Jefferson City, 7-1 and 5-4. With Tyler Hansen going the distance, slugger Justin Blasinski’s third HR of the year and three RBI powers the game one win. That output gives him 25 RBI in his first 25 games en route to a final total of 42 RBI that is the second-most in team history. A rally from a 4-1 deficit in the nightcap gives LHP Austin Gussman his third win without a loss to go with six saves in June. However, he’ll go 0-3 with no saves in July.
Every 2017 Mudcats starter drives in at least one run in a 15-2 home rout of Jefferson City. Kenny Jarema has three RBI, including one on a bases-full walk that is one of 39 free passes he’ll earn on the summer (second-most to Chris Krogmeier’s 41 in 2006). RHP Trevor Maly improves his record to 3-0.
Having sustained, in 2018, the organization’s first-ever loss on the date after 13-consecutive victories, the team reestablishes its July 1 “magic” the next year with another of its many comeback wins. Down 5-0 at Nevada after two innings, the Mudcats parlay six hits and two walks into eight third-inning runs and, behind Jack Albright’s five innings of 2-hits, 1-run relief, win 10-8. OF Blaine Ray goes 4-5 with two doubles and four RBI.
For a second time in a week, the 2019 Mudcats’ come-from-behind style produces a victory at Sedalia. Down 4-0 and having had only two hits through six innings, the Fish come back to prevail 9-6 in 10. The Mudcats score three times in the ninth to knot things at 6-6. Tate Wargo doubles in two runs and scores on Logan Eickhoff’s 2-outs single to draw the visitors even. Then, after Bombers nemesis Pettit completes his fourth inning of shutout relief in the bottom of the ninth, Trevino’s RBI double gives the Mudcats the lead in the 10th. Wargo’s single generates his third and fourth RBI of the game and Jack McNellis comes on to save it for Pettit.
A 6-games losing streak that matches one from their inaugural season as the longest in club history is ended by the 2018 Mudcats with a 16-6, 8-innings home triumph over Ozark. The game is 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth inning when a 2-outs error by the Generals leads to five runs. A 6-runs eighth – all happening after the first two batters were retired – then ends the game early. Nick Ray’s 3-runs HR down the left field line highlights the big eighth.
To save his tired 2018 pitching staff some work, head coach Bounds starts himself on the mound in the final non-league game of the season and throws six shutout, 2-hits innings against the visiting Springfield Redbirds in a 15-0, 7-innings victory. The Mudcats have an all-time-best 14-runs inning in their third, including eight walks and two hit batsmen and capped by Nico Burgarello’s 3-RBI triple. For Bounds, the triumph is the team-record-increasing 13th of his career.
In 2019, C/1B/DH Nolan Metcalf homers and drives in five runs as he goes three for five in headlining a 16-4, 7-innings romp at Jefferson City. Usually-light-hitting Tate Wargo drives in four runs and star Logan Eickhoff three. Eickhoff has a perfect game at the plate, going 2-2 with two doubles and two walks and two runs scored.
Doing all of their scoring in the first four innings at Trenton, the 2019 Mudcats win for the eight time in nine games, 8-5 over Nevada. Jack Grace’s fifth HR of the season goes to the opposite field to complete the Mudcats’ scoring. When the team’s starting pitcher falters in the fifth inning. LHP Garrett West takes over and works three innings to get credit for the win. When the Griffons put two men on in the ninth, bringing the potential tying run to the plate, closer Jack McNellis enters and strikes out all three men he faces for his sixth save of the season and fourth in the past seven games. Led by McNellis’ seven saves, the 2019 pitching staff will earn a team-record-tying 12 saves.
Needing only one win in their last five scheduled games to be assured of a winning record, the 2017 Mudcats get it, 2-0, at the expense of the guest St. Joseph as Parker Kirkpatrick fires a 5-hits shutout. When they lose three of the remaining slated contests and the other is cancelled, the club that blazed out of the starting gate at 10-2 finishes at 24-22.
Chillicothean Tristen Sewell earns his first save for the 2018 Mudcats, throwing 3 IP of 2-hits, 1-run ball to close out a 10-2 victory at St. Joseph. The one-sided win is sparked by Jack Cavanaugh’s 2-outs, 3-runs HR in the top of the first inning.
LHP Sewell allows no hits or runs while striking out four to notch his second save in as many nights in a 6-2 triumph at Clarinda, Iowa. In his last game with the 2018 team, infielder Peyton Cormane steals three bases, giving him 37 in 39 attempts for the year. Successful in his first 20 tries, Cormane’s final total is second-most in team history to Darian Sandford’s 50 (including 14 in postseason games not available to Cormane) in 2009. His 95 percent success rate is the best among the four Mudcats who have swiped at least 30 bags in a season.
In the team’s first postseason game since 2012, a phenomenal and record-setting and -tying offensive performance by MINK League “offensive player of the year” Logan Eickhoff helps power the 2019 Mudcats to a 9-7 victory over visiting Sedalia in the first game of the North Division playoffs. Having tripled in his final regular-season at-bat, North Central Missouri College’s Eickhoff rakes a 2-RBI triple in the first inning to begin what will become, for him, a 3-triples, 5-5 night that also includes a double and RBI single. In addition to being the first Fish ever to hit three triples in a game, his perfect night at the dish ties the team record of hits in six at-bats in a row. He drives in three runs and scores three times, as well. Overshadowed by his offensive heroics is pitcher Brock Pettit’s continued mastery of the Bombers when throwing in relief. The righthander beats Sedalia for a third time from the bullpen, raising his record to 4-2 and giving him the team lead in victories.
The 2017 curtain-dropper provides an opportunity for a new team record to be set by RHP Trevor Maly, but he falls tantalizingly short. Entering at 5-0 – the same as Wetherington’s and Rackoski’s best-ever season-ending marks from 2004 and 2015, respectively, Maly shuts out host Clarinda, Iowa, on three hits through eight innings and takes a 3-0 lead the Mudcats have held since the top of the first into the ninth. However, four of the first five A’s batters in the ninth single, cutting the Mudcats’ lead to 3-0 and finally KOing Maly, who leaves still with a chance to finish either 6-0 or 5-0 with help from the bullpen. Instead, the reliever walks the first man he faces to load the bases and surrenders a game-ending 2-RBI single to the next, hanging the loss on Maly.
Although it’s the organization’s first losing season after 15 winning ones and one .500 campaign, 2018 concludes on a winning note with a road doubleheader sweep at Clarinda, Iowa. With a 6-2 final week, the Fish finish 19-26 in Bounds’ inaugural season as coach. With numerous players already having departed, a slapdash lineup produces a 6-2 triumph in game one, then soars ahead 13-0 in the first four innings of the scheduled 9-innings nightcap. With that huge lead, Sewell, who began the game playing left field, is sent to the mound in the fifth and ends up allowing seven runs in two innings. However, because the starter had not gone the required five innings (when the contest ends up lasting the full nine), Sewell gets credit for his only winning decision of the season following three losses. Interestingly, with few other options, Bounds follows the Chillicothean to the mound and throws two shutout innings before Mudcats closes out the 15-7, 8-innings victory. When Clarinda concedes without playing the ninth inning, Bounds technically gains credit for the first save of his Mudcats pitching career after registering a team-record 13 wins.
A night after the Eickhoff-paced elimination of Sedalia from the North Division playoffs, the 2019 Fish call on division leader St. Joseph and things go south very quickly. Eickhoff has his string of consecutive at-bats with a hit halted at six when he’s retired in the first inning and St. Joseph smacks back-to-back HRs - the first a sun-aided, 3-runs inside-the-parker – in an 8-runs first inning, leading to a season-ending 17-2 loss. The ’19 Mudcats nevertheless have a strong bounce-back season from the organization’s first losing season in 2018, finishing 26-16. In the finale, Eickhoff goes 0-5, dropping his final batting average to .418 and holding his hits total at 72, four shy of the late Steve Martin’s 76 in 2003. The game also sees Jack Grace pole his sixth HR, third-most in team history behind co-recordholders Jason Clark (2003) and Zach Esquerra (2011).