Chillicothe Mudcats Begin Busy Final Month of Season Crisply, Beat St. Joseph 6-2 at Home

Duensing, Young sharp on hill, offense efficient as team gets back to game play July 1 following torrent of rainouts

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
In a 2-2 tie in the seventh inning of their July 1 game against visiting St. Joseph, Chillicothe Mudcat Payton Allen successfully steals third base with one out. On the next pitch, teammate Josh Swinehart swatted a sacrifice fly to deep left field, giving the Mudcats the lead in what would finish as a 6-2 MINK League victory.

By PAUL STURM, C-T/LCL Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — For having played only once in the preceding 10 days, the Chillicothe Mudcats pitched extremely well, executed well offensively for the most part, and were solid enough with the leather to get what will be a very busy second month of their 2021 season off to a triumphant start at home Thursday night.

After finishing a rain-plagued June with a 5-11 overall mark and 4-11 MINK League record, the Mudcats received a combined 3-hits mound gem from starting left-hander Scott Duensing and right-handed reliever Jake Young and never trailed as they turned back the St. Joseph Mustangs 6-1 at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium.

“The pitching was outstanding,” lauded Tyler Hudlow, Mudcats head coach. “Scott’s been solid all year long. Jake’s coming on strong here his last couple of outings. He’s filling up the (strike) zone and just being more aggressive.”

He also observed, “Top to bottom, it was a really nice, clean game.”

While the victory – only the Mudcats’ second on “Chuck” Haney Field in league competition midway through the nearly-2-months season – also is only Chillicothe’s second in the past 10 games, it also is No. 2 in the last five outings and is the fourth time in those five in which its pitchers and defense have surrendered two or fewer runs.

It sends the Fish (6-11, 5-11 MINK) into Saturday night’s 7 p.m. game at St. Joseph, which tall righthander Logan Snow (1-1, 6.13 ERA) with positive energy that the new month and the extended break has given the club something of a fresh re-start, even though they can’t shed their June won-lost record.

“I think they’re just excited to get out and play more routinely now,” Hudlow commented to the C-T after Thursday’s triumph, referencing emerging climatically from the extended rainy spell and heading into a more-promising predicted stretch of weather.

“I think we’re going to turn the page here in a new month and kind of take off,” he enthused. “It’s nice to start the month with a win, especially against St. Joe, an in-division team that we’re chasing” for second place in the MINK’s North Division standings.

Thursday’s result sank the Mustangs to 5-1/2 games behind torrid division leader Clarinda, Iowa. The Mudcats are 10 games back of the A’s, but within a still-daunting 4-1/2 of the Ponies.

Chillicothe Mudcats pitcher Scott Duensing strides into his delivery of an early-innings pitch during the team's 6-2 MINK League victory over visiting St. Joseph July 1. Duensing had his best performance in his two seasons with the Fish, holding the Mustangs to two hits and one earned run over seven innings while striking out eight to earn the victory.

The tone of strong pitching was set early Thursday.

After Duensing (Missouri Southern State. U.), who commutes from his Overland Park, Kan., home to games he’s due to start, retired the lefty-heavy upper part of the St. Joseph lineup in order in the top of the first, St. Joseph righthander Braden Barry didn’t let the Mudcats put the ball in play in their half, fanning three with a 2-outs walk mixed in.

The most-recent successful pickoff attempt by the Chillicothe lefthander this season allowed him to face the minimum in the second inning, too, which Barry answered with two more strikeouts and another 2-outs walk.

After Duensing emulated Barry’s first inning by fanning the side while putting a man aboard with two outs via hit batsman in the third, the home team started faring better against Barry the second time through the batting order, leading to the game’s first run.

Mudcats No. 9 batter Zack Stewart drew a leadoff walk in the home third, followed by Barry’s sixth strikeout of a Chillicothe batter in the first 10 he faced. However, during that at-bat, Stewart stole second base. When Braedyn Brewer then scooted a grounder through the thick, damp infield grass to right side, he legged it out for the game’s first hit as Stewart took third.

On the first pitch to Josh Swinehart, Brewer broke for second base on a steal attempt it appeared would be successful anyway, but, after a bit of a belated start, Stewart strode for home as the catcher’s throw sailed toward second. The Mustangs’ second baseman moved up to catch the throw early and threw back toward the plate, but his peg landed short of the dirt area and bounced over the crouched catcher’s mitt and to the backstop, allowing Stewart to complete a successful steal of home.

The errant throw allowed Brewer to continue on to third base without a play, but Swinehart did not get him home and the next batter was retired, stranding the man at third. It was a failure Swinehart, No. 3 man in the Chillicothe lineup, did not let happen again.

Very strong through the first three innings, Duensing could not protect his new lead. A 1-out double to right-center field – the guests’ first hit – and 2-outs single to center by Mustangs catcher Jaxon Himell knotted the score at 1-1.

Chillicothe then left the bases loaded in their fourth, but a quick 1-2-3 top of the fifth by Duensing prevented St. Joseph from gaining any momentum from the missed Mudcats chance.

The hosts then jumped back ahead.

Brewer laced a double deep up the alley in left-center field to start the home fifth. Following a wild pitch, Swinehart launched a high drive to very deep left-center. Although it didn’t carry over the fence or drop between the St. Joseph outfielders, it still served as a tiebreaking sacrifice fly, easing some of his frustration from the miss in the same situation his previous at-bat.

Once more handed a very slender lead, Duensing  protected it through the next Mustangs at-bat, working around a 2-outs fielding error, but after the Fish were blanked in their sixth, two more Chillicothe errors gift-wrapped the tying run in the top of the seventh.

With one out, a wild, hurried throw after a 1-out grounder to shortstop was gloved not only let that man reach, but go to second before the ball was tracked down. On the third pitch to the next batter, with southpaw Duensing’s back to him, Mustang Cole Slibowski got a great jump on a steal attempt and made third ahead of the unnecessary throw. Unfortunately for Chillicothe, not only was the throw late, it was high and glanced off the glove of the leaping third baseman and into short left field, letting Slibowski dart home with the equalizer.

“Mistakes are going to happen,” the Chillicothe head coach said of the three errors his club committed, but ultimately overcame.

Unfazed, Duensing completed his night on the bump by striking out the batter two pitches later and then fielding a comebacker to keep the game 2-2.

Following the seventh-inning stretch, the home club used speed to set up Swinehart for another long sacrifice fly, quickly reclaiming the upper hand – this time for good.

Having struck out in each of his three previous at-bats, Mudcats leadoff man Payton Allen sent a grounder up the middle well to the left of the shortstop. Although the fielder got his glove on it, the ball caromed a short distance away for an infield hit.

A wild pitch gave Brewer, already two for three against Barry, a chance to either drive Allen home from second or advance him to third to give Swinehart the RBI chance. However, the St. Joseph hurler got a full-count pitch over for a called strikeout.

With their odds of scoring lessened, the Mudcats gambled on Allen’s legs and rolled a seven. On a 1-1 pitch to the righthanded-hitting outfielder, Allen stole third, giving Swinehart his third-consecutive at-bat with a man at third and less than two outs.

Despite the 1-2 count against him, the Kalamazoo, Mich., product delivered immediately, swatting another high drive deep to the pull side. Although it fell short of the wall again, it allowed Allen to amble home with the lead run.

Fully engaged in the basic batting instruction of keeping his head down and eye on the ball, Chillicothe Mudcat Josh Swinehart lifts a seventh-inning pitch into the air, where it would carry deep into left field and serve as a tiebreaking and game-winning sacrifice fly in the Mudcats' 6-2 MINK League victory over visiting St. Joseph July 1.

“He was pretty upset after he didn’t get the first sacrifice fly (done),” Hudlow said of Swinehart’s subsequent successes in the run-scoring situation.

Noted the coach, “That’s been our weak point – situational hitting. … Tonight was a really nice job of picking those (baserunners) up.”

Taking over from Duensing at the start of the eighth, Young made that run enough to win, although not without an argument.

After striking out each of the first Mustangs he faced, the reliever saw a pitch ripped deep to right-center field by Sam Kissane. While it likely would have left St. Joseph’s home park, it only bounced against the fence at Haney Field, limiting Kissane to a 3-bagger.

Young walked righthanded-hitting Jake Grauberger on a 3-2 pitch to bring tough lefty-swinging cleanup man Ike Book to the dish. However, after a hard-hit foul ball down the first-base side on a 1-1 delivery, Book sent a bouncer up the middle on the next pitch that Chillicothe second sacker Stewart glided to and quickly fed underhand to shortstop Allen for a close, but inning-ending forceout.

Before Young returned to the hill, the lower half of the Chillicothe lineup inflated his thin cushion.

Facing a reliever who’d entered and given up Swinehart’s scoring fly ball in the seventh, Tanner Sears accepted a leadoff walk in the bottom of the eighth. A hard grounder through the middle of the diamond by speedy Max Huntley then was booted for an error, cracking open the door of opportunity for the Fish. Often unable to capitalize on such chances in close games during June, the Mudcats barged through that door.

With a chance that Chillicothe might try to bunt the runners up, St. Joseph had its corner infielders pulled in on the infield grass, which proved fortunate for the home team.

Lucas Loos pounded a pitch into the packed dirt in front of home plate, causing a high hop which carried well over the drawn-in third baseman’s head and on into short left field. Despite his only-modest speed, Sears scored without a play and the swifter Huntley, who’d been able to have a big secondary lead at first, raced to third just ahead of the left fielder’s throw. Smartly, Loos just kept running, too, and wound up at second base on his RBI single that made it 4-2.

Having walked twice and scored once earlier in the the game, Chillicothe Mudcats infielder Zack Stewart rips an eighth-inning pitch for a 2-runs double to cap the scoring in the team's 6-2 MINK League victory over visiting St. Joseph Thursday, July 1.

Following a fielder’s choice grounder that led to Huntley being thrown out at home plate and Zack Cox’s steal of second base without a pitch or throw to second being made, Stewart ripped a shot into the gap in left-center field. While Loos tagged up as he should, Cox initially retreated toward second base, apparently to tag up, when he should have been drifting about halfway toward third where he could retreat safely to second while Loos scored without a play if the ball was caught or likely score without a play if the ball landed safely.

The ball did drop for a hit, easily scoring Loos, but, because of his retreat, when Cox was waved home by Hudlow, the relay throw from the shortstop beat him there. Although it likely would not impacted the game’s output, the  Chillicothe runner caught a break when the one-hop throw skipped off the catcher. That not only let Cox score the third Mudcats run of the inning, boosting their lead to 6-2, but Stewart, who was credited with a double, moved into third on the error.

Jake Young fires a pitch during his 2-innings save in the Chillicothe Mudcats' 6-2 MINK League victory over visiting St. Joseph Thursday, July 1. Young struck out three and allowed no runs on one hit as he notched his first and the team's second save of 2021.

Even though the next two batters couldn’t get the runner home from third, Young made that moot, setting St. Joseph down in order in the ninth to earn his first and the team’s second save to preserve Duensing’s victorious first decision in his fourth-straight solid start.

Hudlow said the triumph should feel extra rewarding to his players, since they’ve spent more time serving as a grounds crew at Haney Field over the preceding two weeks than playing.

“They worked their butts off for the last two days to get this field ready,” he disclosed.

Statistically, Duensing held St. Joseph to only two hits and one earned run while striking out eight and walking and hitting only one Mustang each during his seven innings. For the season, across 21 innings, he has allowed only 16 hits and struck out 28 against only seven bases on balls. His earned run average sank to 2.14.

Making his and Young’s work all the more impressive is that they came despite the recent weather disruptions.

“Those two guys really know their (pitching) mechanics, their ‘checkpoints’ and all that,” Hudlow saluted. “They do a really nice job of throwing in-between starts.”

While the first couple of outstanding pitching performances in the past five games predate his arrival, Hudlow offered that the arrival of 2016 Mudcats pitcher Pablo Ortiz to serve as a pitching coach the past two weeks has made an impact.

“Coach Pablo’s doing a great job, talking to those guys and getting them into a state of mind of just filling (the strike zone) up,” the head coach, who doesn’t have a pitching background, complimented.

Offensively Thursday, Chillicothe out-hit St. Joseph 8-3 and received five walks to the Mustangs’ three. Brewer was the game’s only batter with a multi-hits evening, finishing two for five. Stewart, one for two with his double and a run scored, and Swinehart knocked in two runs apiece.

Each side made three errors, but the home team could have had at least a couple more if it weren’t for very fine pickups of bouncing throws by slump-ridden first baseman Greyson Barrett, Hudlow acknowledged.

“It’s nice to see he didn’t let his (four hitless) at-bats go (on the field) with him and helped us win a ballgame (with his defense),” the coach said.