Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats' 2021 Season Ends With Playoffs Loss, Poorest Mark Ever

Host St. Joseph erases 3-1 deficit in seventh to win MINK League baseball North postseason opener 5-3 July 27

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Outfielder Josh Swinehart (Kalamazoo, Mich./Western Michigan U.) of the Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats and St. Joseph Mustangs catcher Jaxon Himell have their gaze fixed on the first-inning pitch Swinehart has hit high and deep to left field at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph during the teams' Monday, July 26, 2021, MINK League North Division playoff game. The park couldn't hold the blast, Swinehart's fourth home run of the season, which gave the Mudcats a 1-0 lead. With Swinehart later singling home his 36th RBI of the season, Chillicothe eventually carried a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning before St. Joe rallied with two runs in the seventh and two in the eighth to win, 5-3, and end the Mudcats' season.

By PAUL STURM, C-T/LCL Sports Editor

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Despite a quick, loud start to their MINK League playoffs opener, an immediate response to St. Joseph’s equalizer, and addition of a bit of mid-game insurance which let them enter the final third of Monday night’s contest two runs ahead of the host Mustangs, the Chillicothe Mudcats ultimately could not avoid finishing their 2021 season with the poorest record in their 19-seasons history.

Behind 3-1 at the seventh-inning stretch, the defending league champions used a 1-out double followed immediately by two singles to tie the game against gritty Mudcats starting pitcher Scott Duensing in the home seventh. Then, they jumped relievers Koby Linder and Joe Shapiro for two runs out of the first four batters in the bottom of the eighth to seize a 5-3 lead which, with aid of a mental baserunning gaffe by the Mudcats, the Ponies protected in the ninth to prevail 5-3 in the first-round game of the league’s North Division playoffs.

The defeat – Chillicothe’s fourth in a row – dropped the Mudcats’ final record to 16-22, a .421 win rate .001 poorer than that posted by the 19-26 2018 club. Those are the only two losing seasons in organization history.

Ending the year a season-low-matching six games under .500 – they also had been 5-11 after a June 28 loss – was doubly-disappointing since the team had rebounded from that June 28 low point with six victories in a row to reach break-even on July 10, only to go 5-11 in the final 17 days of the campaign.

St. Joseph’s win handed it the opportunity to try to ruin the storybook season of runaway North Division regular-season king Clarinda, Iowa, Tuesday night at Clarinda. The winner of that game will advance to the best-of-3 league championship series against the South Division playoffs survivor.

In stark relief to their last playoffs appearance against the Mustangs at Phil Welch Stadium, a 17-2 7-innings loss in the 2019 North Division title game which featured a back-to-back St. Joseph home runs – the first a 3-runs inside-the-park job when a fly ball was lost in the early-evening sun – that powered an 8-runs first inning, visiting Chillicothe struck first with the long ball and played with the lead most of the way.

With two outs and no one on base in the guests’ first, outfielder Josh Swinehart battled starting hurler Drake Kanallakan through five pitches before hammering the sixth one – a low, inside-half fastball he relishes – high in the air and far over the left field wall about 335 feet away. The roundtripper was his fourth of the season.

Although St. Joseph needed only one batter in the bottom of the inning to tie it, the unsightly manner in which it scored ultimately was rendered moot.

Following a leadoff single, lefthander Duensing, who picked off several runners at first base during the season, tried to do it once more, only to have first baseman Trevor Kardell miss the peg, which sailed into foul territory down the right-field line. Baserunner Cole Slibowski already was around second base on his way to third when Kardell elected to make a likely-too-late throw toward third, only to fire it way over the head of third baseman Zack Cox and out of play, permitting the runner to jog home with the tying run.

Even though St. Joseph quickly followed that dual-error play with another single, a double, and a base on balls to load the sacks with one out, Duensing didn’t dissolve. He notched a key strikeout of the Mustangs’ designated hitter and then a routine fly out to left-center field to strand three and keep the game tied, 1-1.

Chillicothe Mudcats starting pitcher Scott Duensing whips an early-innings pitch toward a St. Joseph Mustangs batter during the teams' MINK League North Division playoff game at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph Monday, July 26, 2021. Duensing held St. Joe to one run in the first six innings and three runs total – two earned – in his 7-innings stint, leaving with the game knotted a 3-3. St. Joseph scored twice in the eighth to end Chillicothe's season with a 5-3 loss.

His fortitude was rapidly rewarded with a new lead to protect in the second frame.

After Tanner Sears’ blast to left field threatened to leave the park, only to be caught on the warning track, Zack Cox singled down the right-field line and newly-returned Lucas Loos and Payton Allen – the Nos. 8-9 men in the Chillicothe lineup – walked on a combined nine pitches.

With the bases loaded and one down, Zack Stewart sent a fly ball far enough to center field to easily score Cox with the second Mudcats run.

With Duensing, after laboring through a 27-pitches first inning, finding his rhythm and control, he blanked st. Joseph on only two hits and 51 deliveries from the second through the sixth.

Thanks to Braedyn Brewer’s double down the left-field line with one out in the Mudcats’ fifth and Swinehart’s first-pitch grounder into center field that plated Brewer – Swinehart’s 36th run batted in of the season, second in the league only to teammate Greyson Barrett’s 44, Duensing had a 3-1 advantage to work with as he marched back to the hill to start the bottom of the seventh.

Unfortunately for himself, his team, and Fish fans, after struck out the first batter of the inning on a 3-2 pitch, things unraveled.

Sam Kissane won a lefty-vs.-lefty battle with a double up the alley in right-center field and moved to third when No. 9 hitter Noah Bodenhausen plopped a popup on a 1-2 pitch in front of the right fielder for a hit. However, on that play, right fielder Loos fired an off-line throw in the general direction of home plate that eluded three different teammates who tried to knock it down. Although Kissane, who had been held up at third base, did not try to score, the batter wound up at second base, 90 gift feet that would turn into the tying run a couple of batters later.

With men at second and third, Slibowski sliced an opposite-way hit just over the glove of leaping second baseman Stewart, plating one run and advancing Bodenhausen to third. Had it not been for the preceding throwing error, Bodenhausen would only have reached second on the Slibowski single.

He then would have had to stay put there as Brady Holden’s fly ball to shallow center field was caught for the second out, rather than just beating Brewer’s throw home to score the tying run.

When the throw trying to get the runner at the plate briefly got away from catcher Sears, Slibowski tried to go all the way to third base, but the Mudcats receiver gunned him down to end the inning.

If not for the earlier error, whether St. Joseph’s No. 3 batter, Jake Grauberger, would have delivered a 2-outs something against Duensing that would have scored Bodenhausen with the equalizer can’t be known. When Grauberger did lead off the eighth – against a new pitcher, righthander Linder, he flied out. A similar outcome had it come as a batter in the seventh would have kept Chillicothe in front going to the eighth and might have the eighth and ninth unfold differently with the home team still under pressure to catch up.

As things actually transpired, though, Linder (3-3) entered a 3-3 game and, after getting Grauberger to open the eighth, walked the next man and allowed a hard-hit double to right-center. With another left-handed hitter coming up and one more three batters away, Mudcats head coach Tyler Hudlow and pitching coach Pablo Ortiz understandably summoned lefty reliever Joe Shapiro, who had fared well against the Mustangs (no runs on five hits over 8-2/3 innings in three appearances) previously and carried a very, very good season earned-run average of 1.75.

Ominously counter-balancing those excellent numbers, however, was his general lack of success in getting out of a predecessor’s jam.

Through his previous dozen appearances, when entering mid-inning, Shapiro had inherited 10 baserunners and six of them had scored, even though he routinely then prevented any runs being scored that were charged to him.

It was that negative trend, not the positive ones, which continued in this contest, starting with the very first pitch he threw.

That initial delivery to lefty-swinging DH Ike Book bore into the dirt near the right-hand batter’s box and ricocheted into the air past Sears to the backstop. Down the line to score the go-ahead run without a play came Chase Spoonemore with Sean O’Malley moving up to third behind him.

Although Shapiro drew foul balls from the batter on the next two offerings, Book took only a measured swing at the 1-2 pitch and, with the infield in on the grass, hit a ground ball right past Shapiro’s feet and easily into short center field, plating the fifth and final Mustangs run.

That meant both runners Shapiro inherited had scored again, leaving him with an unsavory ratio of eight of 12 inherited runners on the season scoring.

That damage done, Shapiro shaped up, retiring the next two batters, putting a deceptive scoreless two-thirds of an inning appearance in the books, but being unable to bail his teammate out.

With St. Joseph switching from winning reliever Braden Berry – like Spoonemore and Bodenhausen, a former Savannah High School standout – to recently-added Brady Loving to work the top of the ninth, Chillicothe immediately brought the tying run to the plate by getting a leadoff, bad-bounce single past the third baseman from Loos.

A soft ground ball to the second baseman produced a force play at second, but left a speedier runner, Allen, at first. Unfortunately for the visitors, he was too speedy.

On a 0-1 pitch, Stewart made very good contact, driving the ball deep into left-center field, but with lots of air underneath it. As both the center and left fielder’s converged on it and either could make the catch just short of the warning track, Allen either misread the ball and thought it was going to fall uncaught or mistakenly believed there already were two outs and had raced around second and halfway toward third when he heard third-base coach Hudlow and teammates shouting for him to stop and try to return safely to first.

That was going to be impossible, though, since he had barely begun retracing his steps toward second when the left fielder made the relatively-routine catch and threw the ball back toward the infield to the shortstop in shallow center field. The shortstop caught that throw and relayed the ball accurately to first base, where its receipt doubled up the disconsolate Mudcats baserunner for the game-ending out with arguably the team’s three best hitters due up next, but never to get a chance to deliver a clutch, game-saving blow.

Statistically, Duensing out-dueled Kanallakan, who gave up three runs in five innings, compared to Duensing’s three – only two earned – in seven. However, the Mustangs’ bullpen threw four scoreless innings, compared to Chillicothe’s surrendering two runs – both earned – in a single segment.

Offensively, St. Joseph strokes 10 hits, including three doubles, while the Mudcats’ nine safeties included the homer and a double.

Individually, Swinehart and Cox each had two hits for the Fish, Swinehart’s 2-for-4 final game allowing him to climb to a final batting average of .306, the only season-long Mudcat to post a .300 or better mark.

St. Joseph had 2-hits games from Slibowski, Grauberger and Spoonemore.

Chillicothe had the only three defensive errors of the game, as well as the game-ending mental miscue.