By Matt Goisman
Running low on pitchers and just one loss from elimination, the Muckdogs could’ve easily collapsed.
Instead, their offense exploded, putting up two run-rule wins against the Thunder and the Mudhens — two fellow Pittsburg County Little League teams — Saturday at the Little League State AAA Tournament at Deerinwater Field in Krebs.
Despite the Muckdogs’ dominant victories Saturday, the Mudhens, who entered both championship games with more pitchers available, won Sunday’s second championship game 13-9 to win the state AAA tournament.
Muckdogs 12, Thunder 2
The Thunder played even with the Muckdogs through three innings, never leading nor falling behind by more than a run. But after the Thunder failed to score in the top of the fourth and trailed the Muckdogs 3-2, the Muckdogs sent 12 to the plate in the bottom half, plating nine runs and forcing the run-rule.
“We hit the ball well these last two or three games,” Muckdogs coach Jerrel Hoffman said. “We’ve kind of come alive at the bats. We’ve struggled there, it seems, throughout the season, but we’re hitting the ball well right now.”
Jett McClendon and Zain Wilson led off the bottom of the fourth with back-to-back walks for the Muckdogs, and Cayden McElhaney drove in both with a double to right field, taking third on the throw home. Ty Hoffman then grounded into a fielder’s choice, and McElhaney beat the throw home for a 6-2 lead.
Two Thunder errors on the play allowed Hoffman to get all the way to third, and Ethan West drove him in with a grounder that Thunder shortstop Connor Clayton couldn’t throw cleanly to first. Kaiden Cusher doubled to the wall in left-center to drive in a run, then the Muckdogs loaded the bases on an infield single and a walk before Walker Wilson singled in a run for a 9-2 lead.
Thunder coach Rodney Kelley brought in Gavin Johnson to relieve Thomas Smith. Johnson faired no better against the patient Muckdogs, walking all three batters he faced to force in three runs and activate the run rule.
Just like Johnson and Smith, Thunder starting pitcher Cameron Warden also struggled with his command. Warden walked six of the 17 batters he faced over three-plus innings, including walking Hoffman with the bases loaded to put the Muckdogs up 3-2 in the bottom of the second.
“He was our last pitcher,” Kelley said of Warden. “The kids that pitched at the end of the game had never pitched all year. I just ran out of pitching, and when you’re in a tournament like this, if you don’t have four or five pitchers, you’re kind of in trouble.”
Muckdogs starter West, meanwhile, went the distance, allowing two runs on one hit, two walks and five strikeouts in four innings. He pitched 1-2-3 innings in both the first and third.
“That’s the key to this age group, is pitching,” Coach Hoffman said.
“Ethan did a great job ... Came in and threw strikes when we need him to. Just getting it across the plate, that’s the key to this age group. If you can get it across the plate, you’re going to be successful.”
Cusher drove in McElhaney with an RBI fielder’s choice at second base in the bottom of the first, then the Thunder scored two runs on passed balls in the top of the second for a brief 2-1 lead. The Muckdogs tied the game when, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, Clayton couldn’t field a chopper from Max Noel, allowing Avery Williams to come home.
Though no one had more than one hit for the Muckdogs, seven different players reached base at least twice. McClendon drew a walk in all three of his at-bats, scoring Tucker McBane on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the fourth.
Josiah Ostrowski singled and reached on an error for the Thunder, and Warden reached twice via fielder’s choice. The Thunder finished third in the five-team state tournament.
Muckdogs 20, Mudhens 9
After seeing their lead fall from 10 runs to just two in the bottom of the fourth, a short offensive inning from the Muckdogs might’ve led to their defeat. Undaunted by their opponents’ offensive outburst, the Muckdogs batted 15 in the top of the fifth, regaining and even expanding on their sizable lead in a game they had to win to stay in the tournament.
“I’m proud of the kids because they didn’t give up,” Coach Hoffman said. “After that inning, they could’ve gave up, and probably times throughout the season, we did give up.
“It would’ve been very easy for them to say, ‘We’re done, we made it this far,’ but they didn’t. They kept battling and pulled it out.”
Having already used two pitchers, the Mudhens sent Ayden Parent to the mound to start the fifth. Parent never found a pitching rhythm, walking Ty Hoffman and then giving up back-to-back singles to West and Cusher.
Parent then walked McBane and Williams to make it 13-9 Muckdogs, at which point Ethan Gillespie relieved Parent. Gillespie walked in three more runs before finally getting McElhaney to ground into a fielder’s choice at home, then gave up four more runs on a hit-by-pitch and three walks.
“I was hoping he would come in and shut ‘em down, then maybe we score some more runs and get the lead, and I’d have left him in,” Mudhens coach and Ayden’s father Jeremy Parent said. “But that didn’t happen, so I pulled him before his pitch count was up so he could still make it to tomorrow.”
McBane’s second bases-loaded walk of the inning made it 20-9 Muckdogs, though Gillespie struck out Williams and Chase Wood to end the inning. McClendon came in to pitch the seventh, loaded the bases with two outs on two walks and a single by Dylan Sensibaugh, then struck out Coltin Mattioda swinging to end the inning and invoke the run-rule.
“We just didn’t throw strikes,” Coach Parent said. “We’ve got to throw more strikes. If you don’t throw strikes, you walk guys, they get up with the bases loaded and get one hit, it’s two or three to nothing.”
Ty Hoffman drove in five of the Muckdogs’ runs, batting 2-for-4 and scoring three runs. He singled down the first base line with the bases loaded in the top of the second to score two, then tripled down the first base line to score two more and make it 9-0 Muckdogs in the top of the third.
While Hoffman did his damage at the plate, Cusher took care of business on the mound. Using a sweeping, overhead fastball, Cusher kept the Mudhens’ hitters off-balance until finally tiring in the bottom of the fourth.
“I’ve had a couple of different umps tell me that the way Cush throws, the ball tapers off, and I think that’s what a lot of kids struggle with,” Hoffman said. “The taper on it, plus probably his form itself, because ... he does come over the top a lot, which a lot of the kids don’t do.”
For all the Muckdogs’ scoring, it almost wasn’t enough. The Mudhens got back one run on an inside-the-park home run by Braylon Spears in the bottom of the third, then the Mudhens sent 13 to the plate in the bottom of the fourth.
Jarrod McIntosh and Antonio Stewart both drove in runs for the Mudhens with one out in the fourth, then Spears scored Stewart on a single to center field. Because of an outfield error, Spears raced all the way home to make it 11-5 Muckdogs.
Morgan Gardner struck out for the second out of the inning, but the Mudhens loaded the bases on an infield single by Sensibaugh and back-to-back walks. Mattioda then cleared the bases with a triple to right-center, coming home on the throw from the outfield to cut the deficit to two.
Had it not been for the Mudhens’ eight-run bottom of the fourth, the score could’ve been even more lopsided. Looking sluggish at the plate, on the mound and in the field, the Mudhens fell behind 2-0 after one inning, 7-0 after two and 11-0 after three.
“They were dead,” Coach Parent said. “It would help us if we just got a few hits early in the game.
“We can know that’s the worst we’ve played all year. We’re not going to do that again.”
Spears led the Thunder, batting 2-for-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.