Quintet of Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats Dual-Threat Standouts Left Big Footprints

Paul Sturm
psturm@chillicothenews.com
Floridian Mike Felix swats a hit during a 2005 Chillicothe Mudcats game, one of 44 he delivered while batting .344. He also posted a 5-2 pitching record while striking out a team-record 69 opponents that summer. The following June, he was a mid-second-round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft, making him by far the highest draft selection ever of any Mudcat.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Although not as routinely as in high school, American Legion, and youth baseball, a relative handful of the hundreds of collegians who have played for the Chillicothe Mudcats in the summers since 2002 have contributed as both a position (non-pitcher) player or hurler.

Some have done so as part of the plan for their participation here, others more as a result of necessity. More often than not, those who did both regularly did so with repeated or occasional distinction.

This installment of our idle-summer retrospective on the first nearly two decades of Mudcats action will recount the best “2-way” performers, while also taking brief note of some of the others who momentarily shined in dual roles.

Determining the greatest “2-way” Mudcat to date largely becomes a matter of personal preference of multiple facets and considerations. Fortunately, for the purposes of this article, tabbing a “top five” facilitates a more clear-cut delineation which includes a couple of easily-overlooked former standouts.

Historically, regular deployment of Mudcats in dual roles was at its peak from 2005 through 2011. Fifteen of the approximately 25 players a C-T review identified as utilized in both ways on a handful of occasions or more were here during that 7-seasons span. And, of those selected as the five finest, four were Fish during those years.

Deemed as standing, as a group, at the head of the list are 2005’s Mike Felix, 2006’s Jakob Cunningham, 2010 teammates Mark Robinette and Steve Martin, and 2013’s Derek Birginske.

Derek Birginske, rhp/OF

Approaching that elite quintet in reverse chronological order, the first might rate as the least recognized and appreciated, perhaps owing to the balanced, yet under-the-radar, numbers he posted and his team needing a season-ending 5-games win streak to finish five games over .500

The 6’, 190-pounds Russellville, Ark., resident won three of four decisions, two saves, a very respectable 2.48 earned run average over 10 appearances and 32-2/3 innings, and was the team’s leader in fewest hits (24) and runs (10) allowed by a regularly-used hurler.

In the batter’s box, the sophomore-to-be at Arkansas State University finished was overshadowed by team all-time batting average king Paul Trenhaile, but, in his more-limited use, not only held his own, but surprisingly set a team record.

Birginske’s potency with the stick is best-reflected in his slugging percentage – the stat that recognizes hitting with pop. With two home runs, four doubles, and a triple among his 21 hits, he surreptitiously surpassed the .610 “slug” the late Steve Martin, arguably the greatest Mudcat ever, amassed in 2003 by finishing with a .611 mark in his 54 2013 at-bats.

Hitting a lofty .389 (21 of 54), Birginske was one of six regulars or semi-regulars on Eric Peterson’s second club to average .362 or higher. That led to it posting team records of 317 runs scored and a composite .312 batting average.

Additionally, Birginske’s 17 runs batted in during 18 games as a hitter is the fifth-best such ratio in team history.

Steve Martin, rhp/DH

The 6’6”, 225-pounds Brenham, Texas, product didn’t arrive from Texas A&M until late June, but once he got to town, however, coaches Adam Steyer and Chris Emanuel put him to quick and near-constant work as cleanup hitter and closer.

Right from his first day, he thrived in both roles, often in the same game.

He debuted with a double, triple, and walk as DH and 7-outs, 6-strikeouts save in a triumph at St. Joseph. Considering the Mudcats eventually won the MINK League’s North Division title over St. Joe by a half-game, Martin’s arrival could not have been any more timely.

Eventually, he’d get into 35 games – nearly half of them seeing him start as the DH and eventually pitch.

While his batting average was a solid, but unspectacular, .276, he provided major punch, driving in 25 runs while clubbing five home runs and three triples – both team highs. His five roundtrippers, including the only one ever by a Mudcat in National Baseball Congress World Series play, are tied for sixth-most in a season in club history and his .504 slugging percentage makes him one of only 19 Fish ever to have a .500 or better mark in that measure.

Meanwhile, on the hill, he posted a 2-1 record and seven saves over the course of 24-2/3 innings. His ERA of 1.82 as strictly a short reliever reflects his consistent reliability. Until his lone loss during the World Series, the big righty had a sterling 0.84 mark, including 13 scoreless appearances. Additionally, while almost exclusively summoned to the bump at the beginning of innings, Martin did strand three of the four baserunners he inherited.

Mark Robinette, rhp/1B-3B-OF

After splitting time between first base, right field, and the mound the first 3-plus weeks of the 2010 season, the decision to make Robinette the regular third baseman – effectively coinciding with Martin’s June 24 arrival – was the pivot point of the campaign. The Fish went a torrid 21-7 the rest of the regular season as they overtook St. Joe for the MINK League North Division crown and a second-straight berth in the World Series.

The 6’2”, 200-pounds Tulsa, Okla., resident was a central figure in that push.

Offensively, he used his approximately 160 plate appearances to bat .347 with team-highs of 52 hits and 30 RBI. He also paced the team with five sacrifice flies, ripped a pair of home runs – including a grand slam, and even swiped six bases in eight tries. He struck out only 13 times.

As a pitcher, he started in six of his 10 appearances, but did notch a couple of saves out of his four relief outings and allowed only one of six inherited baserunners to score. On his way to an impressive 2.66 ERA, he produced a 2-2 won-lost record, while racking up 54 strikeouts in only 40-2/3 innings.

In late July, with the Mudcats and Mustangs tied for the division lead with only two games remaining, Steyer tapped Robinette to be his starting hurler for a head-to-head showdown at St. Joseph. The Northeast Texas Community College sophomore-to-be delivered, holding the Ponies scoreless on three hits while fanning six through six innings. Departing with a 2-0 lead, he earned credit for the 5-1 triumph that allowed the Fish to clinch the division crown and trip back to Wichita a day later.

The Oklahoman’s other win was both a double record-breaker and nearly historic.

Facing Joplin at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park stadium July 9, Robinette struck out 17 Outlaws – surpassing Felix’s 15 in a 2005 game, while holding them hitless through 8-1/3 innings.

Two outs away from what would have been the Mudcats’ first “true” no-hitter (they had a 4-innings no-hitter in 2003), a clean hit to right-center field ended his bid and his outing.

Jakob Cunningham, rhp/IF-OF

The Lubbock, Texas, resident was nowhere near the busiest pitcher or position player on the 2006 Mudcats, but versatility might have made him the most valuable member of the organization’s first MINK League champion and World Series qualifier.

The gangly (6’1”, 165 pounds) sophomore at Garden City (Kan.) CC had started 24 games as a first baseman or outfielder and pitched 17 times for the Broncbusters, but first-year Fish head coach Keith Vorhoff used him very little (five appearances as a hitter or fielder and only three mound outings) the first 2-plus weeks of summer play.

Hitting a nearly-invisible .056 late in a June 21 game, Cunningham ignited like a Fourth of July firework after a July 2-5 team break from games.

Commencing with a July 6 start in which he went two for four, he became a virtual fixture in the lineup. Either pitching or playing first or second base or in the outfield, he started all but one of the remaining 15 regular-season games and all five in the postseason. The Texan u-turned his offensive season, ripping 21 hits in his last 52 at bats to finish at a .314 average, joining John Dao as the only Fish to average .300 or better.

On the mound, the righty also was at his best the season’s last four weeks. He fired a complete game in the 2-1 nightcap of a June 30 twinbill at Beatrice, Neb., for his second triumph, then, in four more regular-season starts, surrendered only a single earned run on a mere 10 hits in 17 innings, earning his third win and final decision along the way as the team clinched its much-coveted league championship and World Series trip.That finishing kick sent Cunningham into the postseason with a 1.75 earned run average before a horrid relief outing in a meaningless game left him with a final ERA of a still-respectable 2.43 across 37 innings and nine appearances.

From June 21, when he became an everyday contributor, through the end of the regular schedule, the Mudcats went a scalding 18-5, allowing them – even with four losses in five postseason games – to finish the season with a best-ever 27-13 (.675) mark.

Mike Felix, lhp/OF

One of two players from Southeastern Conference schools second-year head coach Brad Phillips was able to draw here in 2005, the lefthander from Auburn (who ended up transferring to Troy State University for his junior season in the fall) was expected to be a force both as an outfielder-hitter and pitcher and did not disappoint, playing virtually every game at any of the three garden posts or on the mound.

In a team-leading 34 games as a position player, the lithe Panama City, Fla., resident batted .344 on 44 hits in 128 at-bats. Used almost exclusively as the leadoff man in the lineup for the first five weeks, Phillips shifted him down into the heart of the order – usually at No. 3 or 5 – the rest of the way.

In nine pitching stints – all except his last one as a starter, he worked 51-2/3 innings to the tune of team-bests of a 2.09 ERA, a still-team-record 69 strikeouts, and only 26 hits allowed. And, after losing his first couple of starts, when he pitched, the Fish were unbeatable. They won each of his last six starts and his relief appearance with Felix getting credit for five of them.

His most impressive single outing came in a 4-1 home win July 7, 2005, when he fanned 15 Parkville Sluggers and walked only one in a complete-game 4-hitter. The whiffs total stood as the team’s single-game record until Robinette’s 17-K night in 2010.

Given what he’d shown in Chillicothe that summer, the expectation the following June was that – again eligible for Major League Baseball’s annual draft of amateur talent – the Floridian would be a likely choice for some team. When he went far exceeded his or local hopes, though.

Although 19 previous Mudcats had been MLB draftees – a couple before the team had begun play in 2002, all had been well into those respective drafts and most in the middle to later rounds. However, on June 6, 2006, the Pittsburgh Pirates organization tabbed the ex-Fish late in the second round with the 48th-overall selection.

“I couldn't believe it,” Felix related to a reporter for the Troy Messenger, that paper recounted at the time. “I was literally speechless.

“I thought I would be drafted, but, from most of the stuff I heard, it would be in like the fourth or sixth round, so to go that high kind of caught me off guard.”

OTHERS

Among the 20 or so others repeatedly utilized – some much more so than others – both as hitters and pitchers, another handful had significant game or season impacts or strong performances in one phase or the other.

In addition to Robinette and Martin, the 2010 club also had pitcher/second baseman Cory Trudell on it. He took only 17 at-bats, but, on the mound, he struck out a whopping 67 men in 55-1/3 innings, the “K” total second only to Felix’s 69. He posted a 5-2 record and 2.28 ERA.

Similarly, but inversely, the next season, Matt Creel batted .346 in 33 games and 107 at-bats, including a 16-games hitting streak that is the second-longest in team history, while appearing three times and earning one save as a pitcher. A sore pitching shoulder curtailed his use on the mound and eventually led to him leaving the team in early July.

Because of his overwhelming excellence at pitching, 2009 star Tyler Minto’s ability to swing the bat in limited opportunities is easily overlooked. However, in addition to his sterling mound work, he got into a dozen games as a position player or pinch-hitter and swatted 10 hits in only 26 at-bats (.385).

The most-balanced usage of members of this second “group of five” saw 2012’s Ryan Brinley and 2014’s Michael Klein make noteworthy marks in both phases.

The versatile, hard-throwing Brinley came out of the bullpen eight times in nine appearances and earned three saves while not allowing any earned runs in his 16 innings. He allowed only seven hits and struck out 13 while issuing a mere three walks. Offensively, although he batted only .236 in 144 at-bats, nearly half of the infielder-outfielder’s 24 hits – 11 – went for extra bases.

Klein, used either as a first baseman or DH when in the lineup 21 times and sent to the mound on eight occasions – including six starts, had a 3-1 pitching record plus a save while amassing a solid 3.18 ERA. With the bat, in 71 at-bats, he hit .268 with an on-base percentage of around .430 and, on one very special day at Springfield’s Meador Park, he had the best offensive day in team history.

On July 7, 2014 – exactly 11 years to the day after late 2003 Mudcat Steve Martin (no relation to the 2010 Mudcat) hit for the cycle, including a grand slam home run, and drove in a team-record seven runs in a 4-for-5 outing at home against Nevada, Klein matched that single-game RBI record in the nightcap of a doubleheader sweep of host Ozark.

In doing so, he completed an unparalleled day which saw him go four for eight with 10 RBI, a grand slam, a double, three runs scored, and a walk. He even got a chance to break the single-game RBI record in his last plate appearance, but fanned with runners at the corners and two outs.

(In the next retrospective installment, the performances of the approximately-dozen local players who have played for the Mudcats will be featured.)

Oklahoman Mark Robinette delivers an early-innings pitch in what would become the most-dominant pitching performance by a Chillicothe Mudcat to date. Facing the Joplin Outlaws at "June" Shaffer Memorial Park on July 9, 2010, Robinette both struck out a team single-game record 17 men, but no-hit the Outlaws for 8 innings before departing following Joplin's lone hit with one out in the ninth. Robinette also was a key offensive contributor to the 2010 club, batting .347 with team highs of 30 runs batted in and 52 hits.