By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks catcher Ollie Goulder sat in the dugout shortly after Monday's Jayhawk League loss to Dodge City. Goulder reflected on the team's offensive power and quickly named off several of Hays' leading hitters -- Justin Klusak, Larry Rodriguez, Andrew Heck and himself.
Goulder paused, knowing he had missed a name or two. He quickly scanned around, saw Brian Martin, the Larks' leading hitter, and added him to the list. The quintet has formed the core of the Larks' top lineup in several years. Hays, also backed by solid seasons from Cam Brown, Sloan Soulia, Sean Wilson, Brandon Eckerle and Cody Gougler, has averaged 6.7 runs per game and has hit 33 homers in 30 contests.
From 2007-09, Hays averaged 4.9, 5.4 and 5.8 runs per game and hit 12, 28 and 37 homers. In each summer, Hays played at least 48 contests.
"We got a lot of guys that can hit the ball over the fence," Goulder said. "Justin Klusak can do it all -- he can run, throw and hit. I am hitting the ball a lot better after I got a little break (after spring college ball), come out and swing it really well. Larry has got a lot of power, Andrew Heck is a big boy. Brian can hit the ball over the fence, he has been peppering the fence all year. We got so much speed at the top of the lineup."
This year, Hays (17-13 overall, 13-11 Jayhawk League) has struggled on the mound.
The offense, though, has helped the Larks stay in the race for a National Baseball Congress World Series berth. Hays carries a team line of 282/371/437 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage); the second-best OBP and top slugging mark in the last four seasons. The team record for single-season slugging percentage (.483) and runs scored (358) were both set in 2005.
Klusak, who hit 10 homers for Eastern Oklahoma College in the spring, has cracked seven this summer for the Larks, the most of any player in the last four seasons. Goulder leads the team with a .649 slugging percentage, while Klusak stands second at .591. Both rank in the top-eight in single-season slugging.
In addition, Eckerle and Martin have combined to steal 32 bases in 35 attempts; both could finish among the top 10 in single-season stolen bases for Hays.
Goulder, though, believes the offense could improve. Hays has averaged 7.8 strikeouts a contest, easily the highest since 2006.
"Coach was saying we are striking out a lot," Goulder said. "Maybe taking a few too many chances, getting a little big. I think when it all comes together, we have got the makings of a mean lineup."
Eye toward the NBC
Goulder is one of several multi-year players for the Larks. He remembers the run Hays made at the NBC last summer, a two-week burst that yielded a fourth-place finish. This summer, Hays has struggled in late-game situations, including an extra-inning loss Monday. The Larks have yet to lock up an NBC berth, but Goulder wants to return to Wichita.
"We need to get that urgency and that itch," he said. "I know I was there in 2009 for that run we made. It was awesome. It was one of the major reasons I'm back here, is to go out here and try to win that thing. No doubt, we were trying to win that ballgame. We had (Monday's game) and just let it slip away, but I think with a little more focus and just a little more of, 'We are going to kick these guys when we are down and step on their throats,' and go out there and win this thing, I think that mentality will transfer into more wins."
Hays, in third place in the Jayhawk League, can secure a berth with a second-place finish.
"Second place is the guarantee," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "After that, you are at the judgement of the NBC committee. ... We have got some critical series coming up. Destiny is still in our hands."