Meadville’s Fletcher on Chillicothe Mudcats’ 2021 mound staff
Ex-Eagle, college-level baseball team will have season, home opener tonight
By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor
What, but for the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, otherwise would 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.
When it does, among those on the Mudcats’ roster – and, specifically, its pitching staff will be recent Meadville High School graduate Conner Fletcher.
The right-handed hurler, already signed to attend and play baseball at State Fair Community College this fall, will get some head start on the challenges of the next level over the next nearly two months.
Playing virtually exclusively against its fellow members of the MINK League, which includes Missouri and southern Iowa teams, the Chillicothe team will be led this summer by 2011 Harrisburg graduate Tyler Hudlow, an assistant coach at Trenton’s North Central Missouri College the past six years. Hudlow played collegiately at NCMC and Central Methodist University of Fayette.
As a Mudcat this summer, Fletcher will be a teammate of another State Fair CC player, Chillicothean Westley Brandsgaard, who just finished his freshman year at the Sedalia school.
The strong-armed former Eagle, who only two weeks ago won a high school state track-and-field championship in the javelin throw, will get a feel for the college game over the course of a 41-games regular-season schedule while dealing with hitters swinging wood, not metal or composite, bats. He’ll also find a spacious, at times forgiving to pitchers, home field in “Chuck” Haney Field at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park Stadium in east Chillicothe.
On the road, some of the MINK League members’ parks are significantly “cozier,” dimensions-wise.
The majority of the players and pitchers involved in the league tend to be younger, developing college players from all levels of the college game, from NCAA Division I programs (including three University of Kansas Jayhawks to lower-level NCAA programs, NAIA schools, and junior/community colleges.
Through the past two decades, the Mudcats have had squad members from 40 states. With this summer’s inclusion of a player who hails from Leicester, England, the number of foreign countries which have had residents play for the team will grow to six.
Most of the MINK league’s longer-tenured teams have had many players eventually play professionally and some not only reach the major leagues, but star there, including two members of baseball’s Hall of Fame (Ozzie Smith played for the Clarinda, Iowa, team in the mid-1970s and remains a benefactor of the organization. Relief pitcher Mitch Hoffman was a part of the Nevada, Mo., Griffons in the 1980s, prior to that organization joining the MINK League).
Chillicothe’s Mudcats have had two former members play in the big leagues. Catcher Caleb Joseph spent at least part of seven seasons (2014-2020) with MLB clubs, mostly Baltimore, where he set a rookie record by homering in five games in a row in which he appeared (he did not play some games in between). The Tennesseean, who first joined the Chillicothe team in between his senior year of high school and first year of college – like Fletcher will, was a productive member of the Orioles in their American League Championship Series loss to the Kansas City Royals in 2014, batting .333.
After having been in spring training with the New York Mets this March, Joseph recently signed a minor-league contract with the Seattle Mariners’ organization.
Joseph was brought to the majors for the first time in May 2014 by Baltimore only days after pitcher Mike Mariot, who threw for the 2009 Mudcats during the postseason play, had become the first former Chillicothe team member to reach “the bigs” as a relief pitcher with the Royals.
Although his potential career has been hampered with arm and shoulder ailments, Mariot still possesses an undefeated record (3-0) as a major leaguer and continues, at 32, to pursue his dream of getting another crack at the majors. He is pitching in an independent midwestern pro league again this spring.
Because of last summer’s canceled season, the Mudcats’ 2021 season – their 19th – commences 19 years and one day after they debuted with a 5-3 home victory over visiting Nevada.
During their 18 prior seasons, they twice (2006, 2009) have won the MINK League championship and three times played in the National Baseball Congress World Series tournament at Wichita, Kan. (2006, ’09, ’10).
Hudlow will debut as the team’s 12th head coach with tonight’s game.
He 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 the team will have some strong sticks, Hudlow says he’s also looking for players throughout the batting order to stroke 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 in a visit with this reporter 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. That figures to increase the chances of Fletcher making his debut relatively early in the season, possibly in this Saturday evening’s only non-league game of the summer against the Queen City Crush from Ozark.
“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.
This year’s Mudcats schedule has 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 Division clubs – Sedalia, Jefferson City, Nevada and Joplin).
Following tonight’s home and season opener, the Mudcats will return the A’s visit with a 7 p.m. contest at Clarinda Friday.
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. Next month will see 10 home games, including a July 6 doubleheader against the Des Moines, Iowa, team.
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.