Mix small ball, good pitching and defense, late pop to top visiting Princeton 9-3
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — A little of this, a little of that, and a little bit of the other blended nicely into a Chillicothe HS softball Lady Hornets 9-3 home triumph over Princeton. It was CHS’ third victory in succession after beginning the campaign 0-4.
The home team cooked up the come-from-behind conquest with equal parts of small and long ball, balanced with strong pitching and alert, error-free defense.
Behind 2-0 after 2-1/2 innings, the Lady Hornets left two runners in scoring position in the bottom of the third, but used speed and aggressive baserunning to pull alongside the Lady Tigers in the fourth.
They then jumped in front 5-2 in the fifth with more of the same before Kinlei Boley’s ground-ball smash through the hole into left field in the sixth drove home two runs and was immediately followed by a line drive home run over the center field fence by junior Mika Hibner.
That offensive output backed fine overall pitching by the trio of starter Halle Rucker (four innings), winning reliever Mollie Ellis (one inning), and final hurler Boley (two innings).
“All three of our pitchers were effective and our defense was solid,” Lee Rucker, CHS first-year head coach praised.
After CHS had tied it in the home fourth, Ellis (1-0) worked a quick, 12-pitches fifth with a strikeout and two groundouts to keep “old mo” in the Lady Hornets’ dugout. When Princeton mishandled her sacrifice bunt with runners at second and third in the bottom half, allowing two runs to score, the senior got her first decision of the year.
Ironically, a second-inning play on which Princeton got a single, yet wound up with two outs, keeping the game scoreless might have been the contest’s pivotal moment.
With a runner at first base and one out, a Lady TIger singled to Ellis, then playing right field as H. Rucker hurled. Fielding the ball in relatively-deep right field, Ellis had little chance of throwing out the baserunner trying for third, but sent the ball that direction anyway.
Alertly, third sacker Brooke Horton saw the batter, as the throw went to third, was accelerating as she rounded first base, hopeful of slipping into second. Horton left the base and advanced toward the ball to glove it about 10-15 feet toward the middle of the diamond. That gave her time to glove it and zip a throw to shortstop Kirsten Dunn at the base, where the tag was applied well in-time on the sliding batter-runner.
When Horton threw to second, the lead runner, who had slowed up to stop at the base, was waved home by her third-base coach. However, by the time she re-accelerated, Dunn had arisen quickly from her knees as she applied the tag at second and gunned a strike to catcher Hope Helton. The receiver’s tag on the runner sliding into home plate was clearly in time, as well, and Chillicothe – on a basehit to deep right field – had executed perfectly to get not only the second out of the inning, but the third as well, keeping the score 0-0.
Still, a 2-outs double and 3-straight singles after it in the next inning gave the visitors a 2-0 lead.
That held up for a little while, surviving a bases-full CHS threat in the bottom half which saw coach Rucker, in unorthodox fashion, have extra hitter Hibner – the cleanup stick in the middle of the order and owner of five home runs in her career – sacrifice bunt with runners at first and second bases and one out. The bunt was executed, but the next batter was retired, leaving two aboard.
It appeared Chillicothe was going to leave two in scoring position again the next inning after Horton walked with one down, Bre Pithan singled, and H. Rucker put down another nice sacrifice bunt to advance them.
After fouling off two 2-strike pitches, speedy leadoff batter Sophia Luetticke, who had lined out hard to infielders her first two at-bats, pulled a sharp grounder right at the second baseman. Running hard despite the seemingly-likely out, Luetticke and the Lady Hornets got a break when the ball went in and out of the infielder’s glove, dropping right in front of her. That momentary bobble was all the CHS speedster needed to beat the hurried throw to first base by a whisker as Horton crossed the plate with the first Chillicothe run.
That hustle seemed to turn the tide.
On the first pitch to Helton, Luetticke lit out for second base and the PHS catcher, who had earlier picked a CHS runner off third base on a ball-4 delivery to end the first inning, chose to throw to second trying to stop the steal. The throw was going to be late, but that was only one problem. The shortstop, seemingly arriving a bit late, had the tailing throw clip off the end of her glove and trickle away toward the second baseman about 20 feet away. That was all Pithan, about 5-10 feet off the bag at third, needed to race for the plate and score the tying run without a play.
Following Ellis’ efficient top of the fifth as she replaced Rucker in the circle, Boley and Hibner commenced the sixth by coaxing 5- and 6-pitch bases on balls respectively from the tiring Princeton hurler.
Once more, even with a middle-of-the-lineup batter at the plate, the CHS coach went to the bunting game with Dunn following Hibner’s and H. Rucker’s lead in softly placing the ball about 10-12 feet in front of the plate to execute the sacrifice successfully.
Then, in equally- or more-surprising fashion, after showing a possible bunt try on the previous pitch, Ellis squared around and deadened the ball again about 10 feet from home plate. With the non-fleet-footed Boley not breaking for home on contact and having to stay fairly close to third in case the Princeton pitcher, after fielding the ball, faked a throw to first and tried to throw behind her to third, when the Lady Tigers hurler released the ball toward the second baseman awaiting at first base, it appeared the task of getting the run home would fall to the next batter, Horton.
However, this time, Princeton’s bunt defense faltered. The throw toward first base went high over the second baseman’s reach and down the right field line in foul territory. By the time it was recovered, Boley and Hibner had crossed the plate easily, making it 4-2, Chillicothe, and Ellis had sped all the way to third base.
Somewhat surprisingly playing its infielders at normal depth, even though it now trailed by two runs and had only six more outs coming to it on offense, Princeton was unable to do anything on Horton’s subsequent grounder to shortstsop but throw the batter out while Ellis darted home with a fifth CHS run.
Coach Rucker summoned budding pitching ace Boley to pitch to begin the sixth, but she didn’t immediately find her rhythm or release point. Following a leadoff fly out, she got ahead of the next batter, but then went to a 3-2 count before hitting her with a changeup. When a soft-serve single looped over the head of the third baseman, Princeton had the potential tying run in the batter’s box.
The next batter ripped a low line drive toward Helton, who had just shifted to left field when Hibner took over behind the plate to catch Boley. As the ball sank and landed on the wet grass about 10-15 feet in front of the outfielder, not only was it a hit, but there was a real likelihood it would skip quickly off the moist turf and zip past Helton to the left field fence. If so, by the time it was tracked down and returned to the infield, at least two runs would have scored and the batter would have reached at least third base, if not circled the sacks, tying the game.
However, in a huge defensive play, Helton got enough of a piece of the ball to have it carom only about 20 feet away off to her right. Although the runner from second scored and the other two Lady Tigers ended up at second and third on the double, Chillicothe and Boley still had wiggle room.
The hurler used it to wiggle off the hook, whiffing the next batter on three pitches before winning an 8-pitches duel with the next by getting a called third strike to strand both runners.
Reprieved of seeing their lead evaporate like the water standing on the Daryl Danner Memorial Park diamond earlier in the day had, the Lady Hornets delivered some cushioning for the top of the seventh.
With one out in the home sixth, Luetticke shot a sharp grounder to the left of the shortstop into center field for a single. After she stole second – her third theft of the game, Helton looped an opposite-field fly that fell in right-center field for a hit, although, not getting a good read on the ball’s likelihood of “finding grass,” Luetticke moved only to third.
That didn’t matter, it turned out, as – following Helton’s uncontested steal of second – Boley pounded a hard grounder between third and short into left field. With the left fielder positioned deep, Helton was waved home behind Luetticke, making it 7-3, Chillicothe.
Looking for at least a fly ball to plate courtesy runner Hadley Beemer from third, where Boley had ended up when a relay throw home trying to get Helton on her single went high and wild, Hibner got down on the count 0-2. However, after fouling off the next offering, the junior squared up another 0-2 pitch and shot it on a line – perhaps no more than 12 feet high at its apex – over the temporary fence 200 feet away in center field for a 2-runs homer, her first of 2020 and sixth of her CHS career.
Even though down by six, Princeton didn’t go meekly in its last chance. Its Nos. 2-4 batters each stroked their second hits of the game – each of the top five in the PHS order had two hits and the Lady Tigers totaled 12, loading the bases with two outs. However, righthander Boley wrapped up her save by battling back from a 3-1 count to get her fourth strikeout in two innings.
Statistically, perhaps as pivotal to Chillicothe’s victory as any numbers were it playing errorlessly, while Princeton had three miscues, the five stolen bases CHS had, the four flawlessly-executed sacrifice bunts, and the Lady Hornets accepting seven walks while striking out only once. On the flip side of that last stat, the trio of Chillicothe hurlers did not issue any walks, while striking out five. Of the 99 pitches they combined to make, 69 were strikes or put in play, led by H. Rucker’s 35-of-46 sharpness.
“Princeton has some good hitters and a very good pitcher,” observed coach Rucker. “They got more hits than we did, but we found ways to get runners across home plate.
“It was a good team win. ”
At the plate, sophomore Boley, who started at first base, was perfect. She went two for two with two walks, driving in two runs and scoring one. Right in front of her, Helton went three for four and, right behind her, Hibner had the exclamation-point roundtripper, a walk, and two runs batted in.
Next on the CHS softball team's docket is a Monday 4:30 p.m. home game against Norborne.