REELING IN THE MUDCATS YEARS: Big strikeout, low walk rates, tiny ERAs common among team's elite
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — In team sports, no position is as singularly in control of the action as a baseball pitcher. Short of foolhardy, ultra-aggressive attempted base stealing by a runner, nothing happens in baseball until the person standing on the high spot in the middle of the diamond puts his foot on the “rubber” and goes into action.
Over the course of its 18 seasons of play, the Chillicothe Mudcats college-level summer team has seen some exceptional mound work, although it could be reasonably argued that the most-notable Fish have been those who swung bats.
With the team idled by the COVID-19 pandemic this summer, our reflection on the Grand River Entertainment-operated wood-bat baseball team’s history continues today, the focus shifting from team achievements and highlight games to individual exploits over the course of a season that set some Mudcats apart.
This shift from the whole to the one commences just as a game’s action does, by centering attention on the center of the diamond and those Mudcats pitchers who have, in old-time baseball chatter verbiage, “hummed the pill” and “chucked the rock” the best.
Interestingly, if counterintuitively, several hurlers who own high-profile team records or rank high in a stats category or two don’t quite have the heft of overall performance to crack the “top 10” deemed to be the “cream” of the Chillicothe catfish.
While strongly considered, 2018-19 and projected 2021 head coach Caleb Bounds, whose longevity allows him to stand No. 1 all-time in career pitching wins (13), innings pitched (126-2/3), strikeouts (84), and starts (22), doesn’t quite leap into the highest echelon, even with a solid career ERA of 2.98 to go with his 13-5 record. Neither do single-season and career saves leaders (eight each) Blake Ring and Chris Fowler.
A few hurling record-holders or high-rankers, like single-season “Ks” leader Mike Felix and single-game strikeouts king Mark Robinette, likely wouldn’t have cracked the elite mound corps group solely on their pitching prowess, but will populate the next-to-be highlighted group – hybrid Mudcats, who made their presence known both with their arms and bats as pitcher-position player combinations.
In addition, the next installment also will shine a spotlight on local players who have been Fish.
In assembling this subjective list of 10 top Fish flingers – only only of whom is a lefthander, interestingly, the tone-setting impact of starting pitchers prompted the smallest majority of the group possible – six – to be selected from the ranks of hurlers who worked mostly or exclusively out of the starting rotation. The remaining four slots feature pitchers who largely or exclusively entered games in progress. Of the four relievers cited, they combined to start only three games as Mudcats.
Before dissecting their qualifications individually, the group – whose years with the team span virtually the club’s entire history, but eight of whom pitched here prior to 2010 – alphabetically includes Steve Adkins, Andrew Dunn, Matt Hancock, Aaron Kleekamp, Scott Limbocker, Jack McNellis, Tyler Minto, Sean Rackoski, Lendsey Thomson, and Brian Wyatt.
Our recap of why they’re there proceeds chronologically from earliest to most-recent.
Matt Hancock, 2003
While the second edition of Mudcats rightly is most remembered for bashing the ball – multiple, still-standing hitting team records were set by the club co-coached by returning charter coach Shad Fish and newcomer Ryan Hall, rubber-armed 6’2”, 185-pounds Hancock set a trio of mound marks which remain unexceeded to this day and project to remain so well into the future.
Coach Fish, a former minor league hurler who oversaw the pitching staff in ’03, sent the Little Rock, Ark., righty to the bump 26 times – the first 25 in relief – that year and left him there for a total of 56-1/3 innings. The total appearances, the relief outings, and the 52-1/3 innings out of the bullpen all are Mudcats mosts in team annals.
Until, with the roster thinned by late-season attrition, Hancock made his lone start and took his only loss after four regular-season wins, he had posted a fine 2.41 earned run average (ERA). Despite his repeated use in middle relief, the University of North Alabama junior-to-be surrendered only 14 earned runs during the regular season, while racking up 55 strikeouts (more than one per inning on average) and doling out only 10 walks and one hit batsman.
Hancock’s name also shows up in the team records book one other time, ironically for one of his shortest outings.
On July 1, 2003, he threw the final inning of the Mudcats’ only no-hitter, a 13-0 victory over an Excelsior Springs squad which Wes Todd started. When Hancock retired the side in order in the top of the fourth inning of the slated 7-innings contest, with the Fish in front 13-0, play was halted on the 10-runs-lead rule and the Mudcats had thrown what remains their only no-hitter.
Brian Wyatt, 2004
The senior-to-be at Texas Tech University proved to be, in the team’s third season, the Mudcats’ first “stud” starting pitcher.
The Amarillo, Texas, product appeared in eight games, seven as a starter, and produced a 6-1 record with a dazzling 1.07 ERA across 50-1/3 innings. Dominating counts, he threw at least six innings in all of his starts and only once allowed the opposition more than two runs or one earned run. Aside from his lone loss, in which Clarinda, Iowa, tagged him for 10 hits and five runs (four earned) in six innings, he silenced opponents’ bats to the tune of allowing a miserly two earned runs in 44-1/3 innings (0.41 ERA).
At season’s end, Wyatt had walked only five batters in those 50-plus innings, the Mudcats’ best walks-to-innings-pitched ratio ever among hurlers who have thrown at least 20 innings. His 34:5 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is third-best all-time among pitchers with either at least 10 appearances or 20 innings).
Lendsey Thomson, 2007
The only one of the top-tier hurlers not to have posted a winning record with the team, his 3-3 mark hides a degree of overall stinginess few Mudcats moundsmen have matched.
Delayed a couple of weeks in joining the 2007 team, the 5’11”, 210-pounds righthander from Springfield, Mo., and the University of Missouri senior-to-be made only six appearances – all of them starts, yet threw an impressive 42 total innings. In averaging seven innings per start, he not only choked off the six foes to the tune of a 1.71 ERA, but did not surrender any unearned runs among the minuscule eight tallies he allowed either. That means opponents averaged scoring less than two runs while he was in those half-dozen games.
Dependent heavily on control that led to weak contact – he struck out only 32 men, but walked a mere 13, his runs-allowed statistics were aided by all three of Thomson’s triumphs being in games in which he and relievers combined for shutouts.
Andrew Dunn, 2008
One of three heavily-used and successful starters that summer, the 6’5”, 220-pounds righthander from Marion, Ill., who was between his junior and senior years at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, became the first of only two Mudcats hurlers thus far to post seven victories in a season, a total which ties him with four others for second-most career wins in team history.
Dunn’s seven “Ws” came after he lost a non-league game at Junction City, Kan., 7-2 in his debut, a loss he avenged about a month later. Coming out of the bullpen only once in nine outings, he made that single relief appearance profitable for himself and the team, picking up credit for a 2-1 walk-off win over Beatrice, Neb.
Beyond his wins total, which Tyler Minto matched the next year, Dunn – like fellow rotation anchors Blake Barber and Aaron Meade – made it tough for foes to put the ball in play. Righties Dunn and Barber, who went 6-1 himself and was a late cut in the paring of this list to 10 members, shared the team lead in strikeouts with 60 apiece, third-most in a season; lefty Meade was not far behind with 55. Dunn’s 60 came in 13 fewer innings worked than Barber.
The Illinoisan also had the best ERA among the starters at exactly 2.00 over 54 innings and his walks/hits-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio was a very good 1.06.
Aaron Kleekamp, 2008
While the aforementioned starting trio was fueling a high percentage of the success the 32-17 2008 team had – they had a composite record of 18-3 and ERA of 2.60, head coach “Jud” Kindle had one name on the tip of his tongue whenever he needed some shutdown relief.
Kleekamp, a Washington, Mo., product who had just finished his freshman year at Jefferson College at Hillsboro, was used a team-most 13 times, mostly for extended stints, while compiling a 1-1 record with two saves. Yet, despite throwing 34 total innings (he did make two starts that helped inflate that total), he was reached for only 14 hits all season – barely a hit per appearance and about one for each 2.5 innings thrown.
Kleekamp stands No. 1 all-time in one team category: With 51 strikeouts in 34 innings, he posted the highest strikeouts-to-innings-pitched ratio (13.5 per nine innings) for someone who worked at least 20 innings (McNellis had a 14.5 rate last summer, but threw only 17-1/3 innings). He ranks second to Limbocker for the lowest earned run average for a season (with a minimum of 20 innings pitched) with a microscopic 0.53 mark, to 2010 closer Martin in hits-to-innings-pitched rate at 3.71 per nine innings, and, with 39 during relief outings, to Hancock in strikeouts by a Fish bullpenner.
Tyler Minto, 2009
It might be possible, but it would take a skilled debater to win an argument that the season this steady, fundamentally-sound Mobile, Ala., hurler had for the 2009 MINK League champions was not the best ever by a Mudcats mound master.
Between his junior and senior years at Nicholls State University, the 6’1”, 195-pounder was virtually impeccable each of the 10 times he toed the slab atop the bump for the Fish.
After losing 2-1 on a walk-off hit in his opening start at defending league champ St. Joseph, he won his next six starts, allowing only two runs – one unearned – across 38 innings during them.
Start No. 8 again saw him give up only two runs – both earned – as league South Division champion Sedalia handed him another 2-1 defeat. Six nights later, at Sedalia in game two of the inaugural MINK League championship series, he exacted his revenge on the Bombers, shutting them out on two hits and one hit batter over eight innings in a 2-0 triumph that gave the Mudcats the league crown in a sweep. That equaled Dunn’s team record of seven wins in a season.
After throwing six 2-hits, shutout innings in a no-decision the team’s National Baseball Congress World Series tournament opener win in what proved to be his final outing, Minto ended his season having thrown a team-record 69-2/3 innings and owning a 0.62 ERA that is bettered only by teammate Limbocker and Kleekamp.
His superb WHIP (walk/hits-to-innings pitched) rate of 0.86 stands as an unapproached all-time Mudcats best. In addition to sharing the record for wins, his starts total also matched the record 10 both original Mudcat Karnie Vertz and Todd made for the 2003 Fish. Minto was a part of four of the ’09 team’s club-record eight shutouts, sharing each of the four with Limbocker.
The Alabaman’s 60 whiffs tie Barber and Dunn for third-most in a season behind Felix’s 69 in 2005 and Cory Trudell’s 67 in 2010. By walking only 11 batters in virtually 70 innings, Minto posted the team’s third-best walks-to-innings-pitched ratio.
Scott Limbocker, 2009
Despite not joining the club until nearly July, due to the length of his college team’s season, the sidearming southpaw from Overland Park, Kan., via the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, likely would have been a top-10 shoo-in, were it not for his last appearance, but makes it any way, giving lefties representation among the elite.
Throwing a scoreless inning in relief at Beatrice, Neb., in his debut, the 6’3”, 220-pounds redshirt Razorbacks sophomore immediately set a standard he remarkably would maintain through all 13 appearances he’d make in the subsequent six weeks.
Quickly becoming the closer for a team which often won comfortably enough that he didn’t enter in a “save” situation, Limbocker worked between one and three innings in all nine of his regular-season appearances. Over 18 innings – the equivalent of two full-length games, he surrendered only seven hits and one run – it unearned during a 7-outs save.
The lefty kept his ERA at 0.00 with a scoreless inning that closed the Mudcats’ LCS opener victory at home and, the next night, saved Minto’s title-locking, 2-0 triumph at Sedalia with a hitless ninth for his team-high fourth save.
He did not appear in any of the team’s four “stay sharp” games between the LCS and World Series tourney, but got back into action in the NBC tourney at Wichita with a 1-2-3 eighth inning behind Minto against Colorado.
Four days later, Limbocker was summoned to try to protect a 3-runs, ninth-inning lead and a looming second ’09 Series win, but, after getting two outs from the first two batters, ended up allowing four unearned run on two hits, two walks, and an error as the Mudcats stunningly lost, 6-5. When another late lead was squandered by the team the following day, the season ended with Limbocker (1-1) having thrown 21-2/3 total innings without allowing any earned runs, a team-record 0.00 ERA.
Steve Adkins, 2012
Solid, if not spectacular, for the most part, as he rolled to a 6-1 record and 2.51 ERA across a team-high 57-1/3 innings, Adkins tipped the scale his way for inclusion on this list by being as close to perfect as any Mudcats pitcher ever has in his second outing.
Tabbed by new head coach Eric Peterson to start the season and home opener against Clarinda, the 6’5”, 230-pounds righty from Elmhurst, Ill., lasted only 4-2/3 innings, giving up four hits and two runs in what ended up a 4-3 Mudcats victory. It turned out, had Adkins picked up that final out of the fifth inning without additional scoring, he’d have joined Dunn and Minto in producing best-ever 7-1 records.
Instead, he walked to the “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium mound to start the opener of a June 5 home doubleheader with Omaha Diamond Spirit looking to get his first win. He got it – and almost something more immortalizing.
The junior to be at NCAA Division I Bradley University retired the first 17 ODS batters in a row in less than 50 pitches before having the potential perfect game and no-hitter end on a looping single to right field by the No. 9 hitter on a 2-2 pitch. Adkins ended the game with a 2-hits shutout, having used only 71 pitches – all but 18 of them strikes.
After a no-decision, his second win, and his lone loss (a 5-2 setback at Clarinda, Iowa), he won his last four starts, including a second complete game.
Sean Rackoski, 2015
Although the most-lightly used of the six starting-rotation regulars included in the top 10, the lanky (6’6”, 210 pounds) Kansas University righthander from Chandler, Ariz., made good use of his limited exposure.
Debuting impressively with a 6-1 home win over Sedalia in the May 29 season opener, Rackoski followed up with another win in his next start, leading to his being named the MINK League’s first 2015 “pitcher of the week.” He continued to blaze along and, only four weeks into the season, stood 4-0 after a complete-game, 3-1 road win over St. Joseph on June 25.
Unavailable for the next couple of weeks, he returned to the hill July 10 and again besting St. Joseph on the road, 7-1. With only 10 days remaining in the season, he had a crack at becoming the organization’s first 6-0 hurler ever, but got a no-decision after blanking Ozark on three hits through the first six innings of a 7-innings game.
Despite that near-miss on the loss-less season mark, Rackoski nevertheless posted the lowest ERA by a regular Mudcats starting pitcher in six years. The Jayhawk completed his somewhat-abbreviated season with a dazzling 1.13 mark.
Jack McNellis, 2019
Through the years, the Mudcats have had something of a spotty track record of success with pitchers recruited to serve as their “closer.” However, a year ago, this 6’1”, 220-pounds righthander from Columbia, Mo., filled the bill with pinpoint accuracy.
Following his junior season at Salem (WVa) University, where he’d been a teammate of 2018 Mudcats Dalton Robison and Ryann Gray, the Missourian celebrated his homecoming by winning the team’s second game of the season by striking out the only batter he faced. That ever-so-brief appearance proved portentous of what McNellis regularly would do.
Although he’d throw only 17-1/3 innings, he’d answer head coach Bounds’ call to the ’pen 19 times, earning a near-record seven saves and winning two of three decisions while fashioning an outstanding 1.55 ERA.
Although he allowed less than a hit (15) per inning pitched and strike out 28 (a superb rate of 14.5 per nine innings), most amazing was that not once in those 19 appearances nor among the approximately 70 batters he faced did McNellis issue a base on balls (he did hit three men). No other previous Fish hurler who pitched with any regularity had ever managed that feat, which was all the more remarkable because, during his spring season at Salem, he had walked 11 men in 29-2/3 innings.
His perfect 28:0 strikeouts-to-walks ratio stands as a potentially-unapproachable single-season team record for pitchers who either throw 20 or more innings or appear in at least 10 games.
(In the next installment of this retrospective series, Mudcats who excelled as both position players and pitchers and local players who contributed to the club’s success through the years will be featured.)