REELING IN THE YEARS WITH THE CHILLICOTHE MUDCATS: Third MINK title, tripleheader win, Esquerra's power spiced 2010-11
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Their first MINK League championship and first appearance in the then-coveted National Baseball Congress World Series (2006) and back-to-back 32-wins seasons (2008-09) prominent in the rearview mirror, the Chillicothe Mudcats college-level baseball team maintained those high competitive standards in 2010 and ’11, extending the Grand River Entertainment-sponsored club’s 2008-13 “golden era.”
Coming off a second league title in 2009, Adam Steyer earned the unique distinction of being the organization’s only head coach to win more than one league or division title when he steered the squad to a second-consecutive North Division crown in 2010 before Sedalia avenged its 2009 loss to the Fish in the league championship series.
2011 then saw its own singular distinction when the club started with one head coach and finished with another.
Original leader Kirk Kelley accepted the head coaching job at a NCAA institution (Central Arkansas) in early July, a situation which – under NCAA rules – precluded him from overseeing a summer team. After initially missing several Mudcats games during the interviewing process, Kelley – whose son Kraig was on his Chillicothe roster – disassociated himself from coaching the Fish once he accepted the college post and assistant coaches Robbie Holmes and Kyle Phelps shared the interim head coaching duties for the rest of a 27-24 season that included seven losses in the last 10 games.
With Mudcats operations interrupted this summer by complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of new exploits to experience provides an opportunity to reflect on notable on-field successes of the organization.
Today’s chronological (by date, not year) re-examination of exceptional team and/or individual performances in Fish history – the latest in a series of such recaps – shifts the middle two of those six “golden” years.
In both the 2010 season and home opener, a balanced attack provides a 6-2 win over the Mac-N-Seitz Athletics. Four Mudcats have two hits each and five drive in a run apiece, while six pitchers hold the league foe from the Kansas City-area baseball academy owned by former Kansas City Royals Kevin Seitzer and Brian McRae in check.
The first win of Kirk Kelley’s partial year as head coach comes in an 11-3 non-league win over Omaha Strike Zone. Outfielder Logan Moon, who has in-county relatives, drives in four runs.
Surprisingly – given their overall heritage of success, a 3-2 12-innings walk-off triumph over the Macon County Boyz gives the 2010 Mudcats the club’s only 2-0 start to a season through the present day. Chillicothean Colin Parker throws five shutout innings as the starting pitcher, but the Fish are limited to two unearned runs through 11 innings. Victory finally arrives in 12th when Crispin Tarango’s swinging bunt down the third-base line goes for a hit as Justin Creel dashes home from third.
A year later, Parker gets an unlikely relief win when, after trailing Sedalia 7-0 after 6-1/2 innings, the Mudcats cap a huge comeback with four runs in the ninth for a walk-off 8-7 triumph. Following a 4-runs bottom of the seventh capped by Cory Ford’s 3-runs, inside-the-park home run, the first five Fish to bat in the home ninth reach safely, narrowing the deficit to 7-6. J. Creel then dumps a 2-runs single inside the right-field line with one down for the walk-off game-winner. Righthander Parker, whose seven Mudcats career wins are tied for second-most behind Caleb Bounds’ 13, works two shutout innings, allowing one hit, for the “W.”
The 2010 Mudcats follow up on the club’s first-ever 2-0 beginning with a third-straight triumph, 5-1, in the first game of a home doubleheader with first-year MINK League member Omaha Diamond Spirit (replacing disbanded Beatrice, Neb.). Righthander Sean Potter, who joined the team for its postseason play the previous year, tosses 2-hits, 1-unearned-run ball over six innings in his regular-season Fish debut. In the nightcap loss, in what proves to be his last game in a year-plus with the team, IF/OF Darian Sandford goes two for three with two steals, an RBI, and a run scored. The switch-hitting speed merchant attends a Kansas City Royals free-agent tryout the next day, signs with the organization the day following that, and spends several seasons in their farm system.
Californian Zach Esquerra break a 3-3 tie in the top of the final inning of the second game of an 11-2, 5-4 doubleheader sweep at Omaha Diamond Spirit with the first of his team-record-tying nine home runs – a 2-runs shot – as an early-2011 winning streak grows to four.
Having never lost on the date before, the 2011 Mudcats not only are beaten on it, but are no-hit for the first time ever in a 6-0 home loss to Omaha Diamond Spirit. 2010 Mudcat Jake Aylward, an Omaha resident, throws the last three innings for ODS to save the win and hitless gem.
In 2011, Chillicothean Alex Singleton gets credit for a 6-5 walk-off victory over Kansas City’s Milgram Mustangs. Down 5-3 after the CHS alum allows two runs on two hits in the top of the ninth, the Mudcats pull it out on pinch-hitter Esquerra’s RBI double, Ford’s RBI single with one out, and, with two out, a wild throw by the catcher trying to pick Ford off third base.
Parker strikes out eight Clarinda A’s in a complete-game 6-4 road win that sees the 2011 Mudcats come back from a 4-1 deficit after six innings.
In perhaps – considering all factors – the most-exciting ending of a Mudcats game ever, the 2011 club walks off an 8-4 winner over its keen geographic rival, the St. Joseph Mustangs, when Esquerra blasts a game-ending grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. Trailing 4-1 in the seventh inning, the Fish plate an unearned run, then tie it 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth on Nick Palese’s 2-outs, 2-RBI single. After LHP Jon Rand tosses a perfect top of the ninth, two infield singles sandwich a Mustangs error to load the bases with no outs. A strikeout and popup threaten to squander the chance, but the righthanded-hitting Esquerra pounds the first pitch to him over “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium’s distant left-center field wall. The blast starts a 5-games winning streak and 11-of-13 stretch and remains the team’s only over-the-wall walk-off HR to date (Nathan Lukes hit an inside-the-park one in 2013).
The night after Esquerra’s walk-off grand slam made him the winner, Rand again gets the “W” out of the bullpen, holding the Ponies from St. Joe to one run over four innings in a 7-6, 11-innings triumph. The 2011 Mudcats get three 2-outs singles in a row in the top of the 11th. Pitcher-infielder Matt Creel, whose 2-runs HR in the first had staked the Fish to a quick advantage, drives in Moon with the game-winner, then shakily earns the save.
A newly-reported 2010 Mudcat makes an immediate dual impact, helping halt a season-worst 4-games skid. Steve Martin, a 6’6”, 225-pounds Texas A&M player, bats cleanup as DH in his debut with the team and has a single and run scored before being called into the game as a pitcher against host St. Joseph with two outs in the seventh inning of a game the Fish lead 6-5. He strikes out six men while working the final 2-1/3 innings scorelessly in what ends as an 8-5 victory. The game also features a grand slam and five RBI from recently-added shortstop Louie Templeton.
A pitchers-dominated 2011 home twinbill produces a 1-0 9-innings win in the opener as Parker goes the route, allowing only five hits, and a 2-1 walk-off win in eight in the nightcap on Moon’s single. Lefthander Talan Roepcke also goes the distance in game two.
After closer Martin surrenders a tying solo homer in the bottom of the eighth inning at Clarinda, Iowa, the 2010 Mudcats take him off the hook in the ninth on a 1-out walk, Brock LeBlanc’s double to the left field corner, and Casey Solem’s sacrifice fly. The salvaged victory ignites a 15-5 league record in July that lets the Fish repeat as North Division champs after being only 10-9 in league play through June.
Parker needs only six pitches in the bottom of the 12th inning to close out a 3-2 win at St. Joseph for the 2010 Mudcats and himself. Josh McDorman’s single scoring Parker Hipp plates the game-winner as the Fish beat St. Joseph for a third time in five days.
A 2011 double-dip sweep of Nevada is done in walk-off fashion. In opener, after hitting a RBI 3B in the eighth to make it a 1-run game, Esquerra follows M. Creel’s 2-outs RBI hit in the ninth with a long single to right field that knocks in Moon from second base with the winner. In the nightcap, after blowing a 7-4 lead in the top of the seventh (final) inning, Jonathan Davis coaxes a bases-full walk to again score Moon with the game-ending run. M. Creel goes six for nine with four RBI in the twinbill, extending a consecutive-games hitting streak which will reach 16 – second-longest in team history behind Josh Mayo’s 19-games streak in 2003. M. Creel’s streak will end in his premature final game on July 9, as an increasingly-sore right shoulder causes the infielder-pitcher to depart after that date.
2010 Fish center fielder Solem starts what will become a 3-1 win at Omaha Diamond Spirit with the lone game-starting home run in team history. Subsequently, Taylor Johnson (2012) and Nico Burgarello (2018) have begun the bottom half of the first inning with roundtrippers. ODS takes a 5-4 decision in the finale of the road pair.
Statistically, the best pitching outing ever by a Mudcat is delivered by lanky 2010 righthander Mark Robinette in a 20-1 home win over Joplin. He takes a no-hitter into the top of the ninth, having struck out a Fish-record 16 batters. After getting his 17th K, a clean double to right-center field ends his no-hit bid and night. In addition to the hit and the 17 whiffs, he walked one and hit one. Although it’s the fourth 1-hitter in team history (five more have followed), it’s the only one to have reached the final inning still as a no-hitter. Robinette breaks Mike Felix’s 2005 record of 15 strikeouts.
Ironically, exactly one year later at Ozark, where hits and runs usually come in abundance, after a 6-3 game-1 victory gives the 2011 Mudcats a chance for a fourth doubleheader sweep of the year, the Generals no-hit them 3-2, winning on a walk-off single. The second time in team history the Fish have been no-hit also is the second time in just over a month.
The 2011 Mudcats are at Springfield, facing the Ozark Generals, when DH/OF Esquerra muscles up again. With 2-runs homers in the first and sixth innings and a solo blast out of Meador Park in the fifth in a 10-5 win, he joins Travis Dunlap as the only Fish ever to homer three times in a game. Leo Sierra and Zack Malone also leave the premises.
In arguably the most-distinctive date in team history (outside of the first-ever game), with the 2010 calendar offering no option for making up a rain-interrupted road contest with the Excelsior Spring Cougars the previous night, a make-up doubleheader the next day is preceded by completion of the prior evening’s action suspended in the bottom of the fourth inning. That means the Mudcats will get three decisions in one day.
Hoping to catch North leader St. Joseph, the Fish sizzle rather than melt, igniting the 8-1 closing rush to the regular season that lets them nose out the Mustangs.
Ahead 6-1, but with the Cougars threatening, when the suspended game resumes, the Mudcats lefty Jake Aylward limits the damage to one more run in the fourth, then blanks them the final four innings as the Mudcats get the big day off on the right foot with a 9-2 triumph that featured DH Steve Martin’s 2-runs homer the night before.
Heading into the twinbill with that momentum, righthanders Cory Trudell (six innings) and Martin combine on the hill staff’s second 1-hitter in eight days in a 3-0 victory. The only E-Springs hit is a 2-outs single off Trudell, who will finish the year with 67 strikeouts – second-most in team annals. Before coming on to get his sixth save, Martin homers as DH for the second day and game in a row, leading off the second to provide the game-winning run.
The third game then sees the Mudcats pull out a 5-3 decision with a last-inning comeback. Down 3-2, Templeton and Tyson Parks single with one out in the final inning. After they execute a double-steal, Martin’s bouncer to shortstop is thrown away, tying the game. J. McDorman follows with a tiebreaking single and Brock LeBlanc’s RBI groundout adds an insurance run.
When Martin, who had moved from DH to the mound again in the bottom of the sixth, retires Excelsior Springs in the bottom of the inning, he gets his second win of the year and the Fish swim away with three victories on the day. The triumphs wind up being half of a 6-games winning streak that vaults the Mudcats past St. Joseph into first place in the division, where they stay.
Riding the adrenaline rush of three victories the afternoon and evening before, the 2010 Mudcats roll into Clarinda, Iowa, and best the A’s, 7-5. Derek McGowan holds Clarinda to one earned run over 6-2/3 innings, allowing his team’s offense to build up a 7-3 lead. Martin doubles twice and drives in three runs and Templeton is 3-5.
With a chance to make it six wins in three days – all on the road, the ’10 Mudcats pull it off with a 6-1, 3-0 doubleheader sweep at Omaha over the Diamond Spirit. Lefty Kyle Kinman tosses a 4-hits complete game in the opener, backed by Robinette’s fifth-inning grand slam. Martin had homered leading off the fourth. In nightcap, Ethan Opsahl (6 IP, 10 K) and Martin team for the club’s third 1-hitter of the month, leaving the Mudcats with a 1-game lead in the North Division with three games to go.
With the Mudcats and guest St. Joseph tied for the 2010 North Division lead with two games to go after the Mustangs took an 8-1 win on their field the night before, Robinette’s six innings of 3-hits, shutout pitching buy time for the Fish sticks to finally get in some licks. Back-to-back doubles by Parks and Martin break a scoreless deadlock in the sixth and Robinette’s single makes it 2-0. Templeton doubles, steals third, and scores on a wild throw and Robinette later singles home another tally in the seventh, making it 4-0. Templeton’s RBI double in the eighth gives reliever Martin a 5-0 cushion, but he falters a bit and righthander McGowan is called in. With the sacks full, he strikes out the next three to save the 5-1 verdict and give the Mudcats a chance to take the title the next day.
Seeking to sew up a second-consecutive MINK League North Division crown, the 2010 Mudcats manage only one run off visiting Clarinda, Iowa, but it’s a walk-off winner. With Trudell (5-1) blanking the A’s on six hits with 11 strikeouts through 8-1/2 innings, Solem draws a 1-out walk in the bottom of the ninth. Templeton then beats out a bunt hit before Parks rolls out to the second baseman, advancing both men. Clarinda opts not to walk Fish DH Martin and the decision immediately proves unwise as he gives the Mudcats the division title and a third trip to the NBC World Series in five years with a single to left field on the first pitch to him. The triumph gives the fast-finishing Fish an 8-1 closing run to their regular season, all of the games being league outings.
Hoping to tie the 2010 MINK League championship series at Sedalia, the Mudcats limit the Bombers to one run, but lose. Future/current major league bopper Luke Voit, a St. Louis-area product and Missouri State University star who served as Sedalia’s DH in all four 2010 games against the Fish, leads off the bottom of the second inning with a double off the left field fence and scores on two subsequent groundouts. For Voit, who’ll reach the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals seven years later and be a potent power bat for the New York Yankees in 2018 and ’19, the double is the only hit he has in 14 official at-bats against Chillicothe pitching during the season. Loser Sean Potter and Steve Martin combine on a 4-hitter.
The 2011 Mudcats follow a 2-hits, 2-1, 12-innings loss in their Central USA Regional Tournament opener the day before with an Esquerra-powered 13-9 shootout win over Omaha Diamond Spirit. The slugger rips a bases-full triple in the third inning and follows it with a 3-runs homer the next frame. Dustin Phelps adds three hits and three RBI.
Facing elimination from the 2011 regional, Esquerra follows his 6-RBI game the night before with his second 3-runs homer in as many games to give the Fish a 5-4 lead over the Topeka Golden Giants in the top of the fifth inning. In the seventh, his third homer in two days and ninth of the season – giving him 10 RBI in two games – moves the lead to 6-4 and Nick Palese’s RBI single in the ninth makes it 7-4, Mudcats. However, Topeka rallies and, with the tying run at first and no outs, Parker enters and strikes out the first man he faces. The next hits a grounder to third, but it’s booted, cutting the lead to 7-6. After second baseman Will Lindsey makes an outstanding catch of a line drive that – if not for the preceding error – would have ended the game as a 7-6 Mudcats triumph, Topeka’s next batter hits an 0-2 pitch past the third baseman for a 2-runs single that ends the Mudcats’ season at 27-24. After being one pitch from elimination, Topeka goes on to win the tournament.
Starting the organization’s third World Series appearance in five years, the Mudcats open victoriously for a second year in a row, coasting past the Everett (Wash.) Merchants 7-0 behind a masterful Potter complete game. Staked to a 4-0 lead in the top of the second inning, the tall righthander throws a 4-hitter, striking out seven. A 2-runs single in the second by postseason addition Jake Brown starts the scoring and Templeton smacks a 2-runs triple two batters later as the Fish reach 30 wins for the season for a third-successive year. Losses in their next Series games will complete 2010 with a 30-20 record.