Meadville's Fletcher Might Get Mound Call to Start Chillicothe Mudcats' June 5 Home Game

Mudcats drop 2021 season opener to Clarinda, Iowa, A's Wednesday (June 2)

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor
Recent Meadville High School graduate Conner Fletcher could be given the assignment as starting pitcher in the 2021 Chillicothe Mudcats college-level summer baseball team's second home game of the season this Saturday, June 5.

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor

One night after being reminded that there’s no defense for bases on balls and hit batsmen in baseball and that too many of them almost inevitably lead to defeat, the Chillicothe Mudcats’ 2021 season opener reinforced and underscored that point, and not in a pleasing way.

Tied 1-1 the visiting Clarinda (Iowa) A’s through seven innings of a crisply, if not quickly, played overall and home debut for the new campaign, Chillicothe surrendered six runs on one hit, five walks, and three hit batters in the last two innings and lost, 7-1.

The defeat moved the Mudcats’ all-time record in season openers back below .500 at 9-10. In their home debuts through 19 seasons, they are 11-8.

Following a Friday visit to Clarinda, which improved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the MINK League with the triumph here, the Mudcats will be back at home Saturday for a 7:05 p.m. non-league game – their only one of the season – against the Queen City Crush from Ozark.

As suspected, given the early-season circumstances and non-league setting, recent Meadville High School graduate Conner Fletcher, a righthander, is being eyed by Chillicothe head coach Tyler Hudlow to be the Fish’s starting pitcher Saturday. The coach said he’ll have Fletcher throw some on the sidelines Friday and, if his arm is sound and he exhibits sufficient control, the State Fair Community College freshman-to-be likely will be given the ball to begin Saturday night’s home game.

Wednesday’s contest – the Mudcats’ first since their late July 2019 blowout loss at St. Joseph in the league playoffs – unraveled slowly in the top of the eighth inning.

Given that, despite some promising swings and contact, Chillicothe ended the night posting only one run – an unearned one – on the “Chuck” Haney Field scoreboard at “June” Shaffer Memorial Park, it might have been inconsequential at two Fish relievers handed so many late tallies to the Iowans. One might well have been enough.

Having shut out Clarinda on two hits through the fifth, sixth and seventh innings after taking over from starter Scott Duensing, righthander Trae Brownell issued the first walk of his outing – he’d hit one and allowed two singles the three prior frames – on a 3-2 pitch to the leadoff batter of the top of the eighth.

He then reflexively made a defensive play which, while it produced the first out of the inning, ultimately led to his and the team’s loss.

On a 1-2 pitch to righthanded-swinging Taylan Mullins-Ohm, Brownell (0-1) saw the A’s No. 5 batter hit the ball right back over the middle of the mound, solidly, but not with great velocity. The momentum of his delivery having pulled him slightly toward the first base side of the hill, Brownell instinctively twisted back the other direction and, as he went to a knee, on his backhand cleanly speared the ball.

His movements to reach the bouncer having already spun him to where he was virtually facing second base, Brownell – a senior this past season at Truman State University in Kirksville, near his Novinger home – calmly balanced himself enough to lob a throw toward the bag in the middle of the diamond ahead of the runner advancing from first.

Unfortunately, the throw drifted a bit to the right field side of the bag, where shortstop Payton Allen snagged it by coming off the base and then tagged the approaching runner for the inning’s first out. That, however, prevented any chance of throwing the ball on to first for a double-play attempt.

Ironically, while an out resulted, Brownell’s effort hurt him because the grounder was headed right at second base which Allen already was gliding toward. Barring any bad hop or a fumbled fielding attempt, the Chillicothe shortstop likely would have gloved the grounder while touching the bag for one out and then easily thrown Mullins-Ohm out at first for a twin-killing that would have left the bases empty with outs.

Under that scenario, even the succeeding walk and hit batter would have had A’s only at first and second base when Brownell struck out Clarinda’s No. 8 batter. However, rather than that whiff ending the inning with the score still 1-1, it was only the second out and brought another batter to the dish with the bases full.

With the tiebreaking run only 90 feet away, Brownell fired three consecutive non-strikes to put his back to the wall in the still-knotted contest. Showing grit, he pumped home one strike, then another, to move to the precipice of undamaged escape.

However, as the next pitch tailed inside, but seemingly not far out of the strike zone, to the righthanded-batting Isaac Lopez, the No. 9 man in the A’s lineup, it nicked his arm. The hit by pitch forced the go-ahead run home and prompted Brownell’s removal from the game.

Lefthanded reliever Kale Harris entered, but immediately displayed even-more-severe lack of control of his own. He walked the first opponent on five pitches, then the second the same way, pushing another two runs home as the fielders behind him, who had performed very well all night, could only watch.

Finally, a called strikeout of the third batter Harris faced curtained the inning, but not before three runs had scored without aid of a hit. In fact, of the nine Clarinda batters of the inning, only one put the ball in play – the grounder which might have saved Brownell, had he let it go past him.

Although it proved superfluous when Clarinda winning pitcher Blake Ignaciak completed a splendid 5-innings stint of shutout, 3-hits relief by stranding two Fish in the bottom of the ninth, the A’s tacked on another 3-spot against Harris in the visitors’ ninth.

The New Franklin, Mo., junior southpaw, a 2019 Mudcat who pitched this spring for Ohio Valley University, put two men aboard with a leadoff hit batsman and 1-out walk before seeing a 2-outs, 1-2 pitch hammered deep to left field by Clarinda right fielder and No. 8 batter Isaiah Marquez. It sailed just over the head of the Mudcats left fielder for a 2-runs triple, making any last-gasp Chillicothe comeback highly unlikely.

After Marquez then made it 7-1 by dashing home on a high wild pitch, Ignaciak easily pitched around a pair of Chillicothe singles by Braedyn Brewer and Grayson Barrett in the home ninth to close out the visitors’ victory.

The Mudcats struck first in the game, although their meager 1-0 lead was short-lived.

Having left men at first and third against A’s starting righthander Chris Paruleski in the second, Chillicothe got Brewer’s first of two hits – he also walked once – in the game to begin the home third.

A walk to leadoff man Allen followed, but the Iowa team’s pitcher stiffened, getting a harmless fly out to center field and catching a weak popup himself about 40 feet down the first-base line while keeping the two runners frozen.

However, a ground ball to the third baseman by Josh Swinehart, who'd legged out a tap to third for the Mudcats' first hit of the season in the second inning, was followed by a low throw across the diamond that the first baseman could not glove cleanly on the bounce. When the ball  squirted into foul territory behind first, Brewer easily scored without a throw, putting the first run of the 2021 season on the scoreboard for the Mudcats.

Although the next batter was hit by a pitch, Paruleski induced a fielder’s choice grounder to shortstop for the final out of the inning at second to strand three. The Fish would go on to leave two aboard in both the fourth and fifth, as well, giving them nine stranded through five innings, a costly number, just like the number of “free bases” on walks and hit batsmen given to the A’s.

Staked to the slim lead, Chillicothe starting pitcher Scott Duensing, who was more elusive than sharp on the bump, squandered it on a leadoff single, a critical passed ball, and 2-outs hit by Marquez in the fourth. The A’s outfielder’s first of two run-scoring hits came on a full-count pitch he lined sharply into right-center field to plate Jeff Clark.

That 1-1 deadlock was preserved by each side’s relief hurlers from when they entered to begin the fifth until Brownell “blinked” in the eighth.

Statistically, righthander Ignaciak struck out seven while issuing only one free pass and allowing three singles during his game-finishing five innings on the mound. For the game, A’s hurlers allowed seven hits and four walks plus one hit batsman.

Chillicothe’s trio – righty Brownell sandwiched between two lefties – gave up only seven hits, too, but walked seven and plunked three. Five of the bases on balls and two of the hit batsmen were grouped in the decisive eighth and ninth.

Individually at bat, only the Mudcats’ Brewer – batting ninth as designated hitter – and A’s Marquez, who was in the “eight” hole – had multi-hits games. Brewer finished two for three and scored the only Chillicothe marker. Marquez was two for five with three runs batted in and a run scored.

While it ultimately came in a losing cause, the home team’s defense was very solid and, at times, sensational. Not only did the Mudcats not commit an error (the Clarinda run off Duensing was unearned, due to the passed ball), but Chillicothean Wes Brandsgaard made several outstanding plays at first base and left field Barrett raced in to make a diving catch in the fifth.