Mudcats open 19th season at home tonight

College-level baseball team will host league foe A’s at 7:05

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Chillicothe Mudcats promotional theme

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

What, but for the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, would otherwise have been the start of the 20th season of Chillicothe Mudcats college-level, wood-bat summer baseball will commence tonight – weather and field conditions permitting, naturally – when the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s roll into “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium for a 7:05 p.m. MINK League game to begin the Mudcats’ 2021 season.

Because of last summer’s canceled season, the Mudcats’ 19th season commences 19 years and one day after they defeated visiting Nevada 5-3 on what now is “Chuck” Haney Field at Shaffer Park Stadium.

Tyler Hudlow, sixth-year assistant coach at nearby North Central Missouri College, will debut as the Fish’s 12th head coach, succeeding his long-time friend Caleb Bounds, who led the club in 2018-19.

Hudlow this summer will utilize a player roster largely recruited by Bounds before the former coach had to step aside following his February acceptance of a year-round coaching post at the Illinois junior college where he’s been a part-timer for a couple of years.

From the initial, tentative roster Bounds had assembled, half of the potential Mudcats returnees from 2018 or ’19 have elected to bypass the opportunity to come back to Chillicothe. As of last week, Hudlow identified only five 2021 team members who previously have worn the Mudcats colors – Chillicothean Tristen Sewell and Trae Brownell from the 2018 squad and Cristhian Cardona, Scott Duensing and Kale Harris from 2019.

Southpaw pitcher Sewell will be joined on the club by his 2017 Chillicothe High School teammate and 2020 CHS graduate Westley Brandsgaard, a catcher/first baseman.

Former Chillicothe High School diamond star Westley Brandsgaard, seen ripping a single during a 2019 game against Maryville, will be a member of the Chillicothe Mudcats this summer. The 2020-21 State Fair Community College freshman figures to see action as a catcher, first baseman, or designated hitter. He's one of two former Hornets – the other being 2017 alumnus and 2018 Mudcat Tristen Sewell – who will be Fish this season, which begins with a home game tonight.

Additional local “flavor” will come from new Meadville High graduate (and recently-crowned state javelin-throwing champion) Conner Fletcher, a right-handed pitcher, who is ticketed to become a teammate of Brandsgaard’s at State Fair Community College in Sedalia this fall.

Returnees Harris, Brownell and newcomer Trevor Kardell offer some additional regional “identity” – Brownell hailing from Novinger in the Kirksville area, Harris from New Franklin near Boonville, and Kardell being a Lee’s Summit product now attending the University of Kansas.

Adding other “connections” to the strong 2019 Chillicothe squad will be several players besides returning hurlers Duensing, Cardona and Harris.

Outfielder Braedyn Brewer is described by Hudlow as “best friends” with former North Central Missouri College teammate and 2019 Mudcat and MINK League co-player of the year Logan Eickhoff. The Mudcats’ new coach compares Brewer very favorably with Eickhoff as a potential diamond dynamo for the Fish.

A freshman at Eastern Illinois University this past school year, righthanded pitcher Mitch Alba was on this springs’ EIU squad which included now-junior Eickhoff.

Kardell is one of three KU Jayhawks on this summer’s initial roster, joined by infielders Zack Cox and Payton Allen. At KU, they were teammates of 2019 Mudcats star Nolan Metcalf, who was at least Eickhoff’s equal as a potent producer here two years ago as a catcher/first baseman/DH and had a strong spring at Kansas.

As of the deadline for the filing of this article Monday afternoon, which players actually would be in town and ready to participate in tonight’s season and home opener was unknown. Presumably the “local” trio of Brandsgaard, Sewell and Fletcher will be, likely along with commuting pitchers like Brownell, Harris and Duensing.

Having had players from 40 states and five foreign countries be team members through their first 18 seasons, the Mudcats expect to a sixth country to that list this summer.

Big righthanded pitcher Myles Janson, a 6’6”, 240-pounds sophomore at Menlo College in California, is a resident of Leicester, England.

Historically, the Mudcats have a .500 record in their prior 18 season openers. In home openers, they're somewhat better at 11-7.

Hudlow, a 2011 Harrisburg graduate who played at NCMC and Central Methodist University in Fayette, describes as “aggressive” his style of offense, looking to try to force defenses to react and execute under pressure from on-the-move baserunners, whether those are would-be basestealing attempts, hit-and-run calls, or runners attempting to “take an extra base” on balls hit to the outfield.

While it requires enough footspeed and baseball savvy to pull off advantageously, such a style often has stood the Mudcats in very good stead, in terms of run production, given the spacious dimensions of Haney Field.

Although he anticipates he and Bounds have found some strong sticks, in the Eickhoff/Metcalf mold, Hudlow says he’s also looking for players throughout the batting order stroking the ball well.

“There’s not much of a dropoff from, say, our top four hitters to guys that might be coming off the bench,” he predicted to the C-T in a visit last week. “… I think a lot of our guys have a chance to be impactful.”

Pitching reliability routinely is something of a crapshoot in summer ball, as coaches try to mix together hurlers who didn’t throw a lot during their college seasons with others who might be coming off injuries to some looking to “tame” their control. Given that the 2020 college season was shutdown in its infancy by COVID-19 restrictions, it might have been two years since some 2021 Fish flingers have toed the rubber competitively.

The new Mudcats coach says he feels good that, at least at season’s start, he isn’t aware of needing to “baby” anyone’s arm or dealing with “innings caps” requested by any of the coaches who have sent their pitchers to Chillicothe.

“Right now, it sounds like we’re pretty healthy on the pitching side,” Hudlow related last week.

As is routinely the case any more, it seems, the pitchers won’t be asked to pitch too long in their first couple of outings.

“It will come down to how the guy’s throwing (that game)” the Mudcats’ rookie coach says of how far he’ll go with a hurler his first time or two back on the bump.

“I’m definitely going to want to ‘get some guys’ feet wet’ a little bit and see what they can do early on. There might be a couple of guys who are really cruising along I might extend a little. I definitely don’t want to go too deep with anybody early.”

As at any level of the sport, limiting “free bases” from walks, hit batsmen, or errors will be influential in how successful or unsuccessful a pitcher, the staff, and the team might be.

“As long as they’re throwing strikes, I think we have a solid staff,” Hudlow projected.

Given that circumstance, early-season games often tend to be high-scoring and an early lead of multiple runs, even in the middle innings, doesn’t necessarily equate with control of the outcome, since two or three more pitchers might be used in the final three or four frames and any one of them could be out of rhythm and ineffective.

In perhaps the most noteworthy aspect   of this year’s Mudcats schedule, the team has only one non-league contest planned in addition to its 40 league games (eight each against North Division foes St. Joseph, Clarinda, and league newcomer Des Moines Peak Prospects and four apiece with the four South foes Sedalia, Jefferson City, Nevada and Joplin).

That lone non-MINK matchup will be with the Queen City Crush from Ozark at home this Saturday night. The Crush are members of the Springfield-area Show-Me Collegiate League.

Following tonight’s home and season opener, the Mudcats will return the A’s visit with a 7 p.m. contest at Clarinda Friday. After the non-league outing at home Saturday, Sunday will see the first clash with a South opponent at Nevada.

Next week will see four “home” games, but the second of those – Wednesday, June 9 – will be the Mudcats’ now-traditional game at Trenton’s Burleigh Grimes Field. Sedalia will be the opponent.

Eleven of the 21 slated June games will be at Shaffer Park Stadium. That leaves 20 games due to occur in July prior to the league playoffs, which are set to begin July 26. Next month will see 10 home games, including a July 6 doubleheader against the Des Moines, Iowa, team.

A couple of facility changes will be observed or experienced at Haney Field/Shaffer Park Stadium.

On the playing surface, the former bare dirt “warning track” at the backstop and extending down each side of the field toward the outfield has been allowed to grow up in grass.

In the stadium, the seating section behind home plate has had about 8- to 10-feet-high chain-link fencing attached to its back wall. The fencing will have a porous windscreen-type material affixed to it to create some heat-reducing shade for those seats in the early innings of evening games.

Admission prices for games remain unchanged – $5 for adults, $1 for senior citizens, $3 for school-age children, and free for anyone younger than school age. Some promotional nights with special admission packages also will be offered on occasion and most home games will have a promotional item or aspect provided by that game’s business sponsor.