By CONOR NICHOLL
The Hays Larks draw players from all over the United States, and sometimes from outside of the country. Athletes come from NCAA Division I, Division II and junior colleges, and occasionally the NAIA ranks. Sometimes, it takes time for the squad to come together. However, by the end of the first week this season, manager Frank Leo said a strong bond had formed, one of the quicker meshes in his 30-plus years.
On Tuesday, the Larks rode out a 45-minute rain delay before the game started, then scored five runs in the first two innings. Hays eventually held on to beat Liberal, 5-3, at Larks Park. Hays moved to 14-1, 10-1 Jayhawk League, while Liberal 8-7, 4-7. The Larks now have won 11 in a row.
"They were together, they believe in each other," Leo said.
"They are having fun with each other. The game of baseball has its ups and downs. When we hit a bump, hopefully these guys will be able to ride through that. In a long summer like this, in the heat of the summer, you are going to hit a bump. But I think we've got the kind of chemistry and the kind of makeup to handle that."
In the first inning, the Larks had the first three batters reach base. Aaron Cornell led off with a walk and Desmond Roberts singled up the middle. Jake Placzek moved to the No. 3 slot and played shortstop in place of Elvin Rodriguez, who drove down to Wichita for a tryout with an Independent League team. He bunted down the third base line to load the bases.
"We are all playing really loose," Placzek said. "When we are playing loose, we play with confidence. We hit the ball, play good defense, pitch really well. Just kind of all meshing together. That's what it takes to win."
Catcher Taylor Petersen then delivered a rare feat. He blasted an opposite field shot in the right-center gap that went 300-plus feet. However, Petersen broke his bat.
"He said he hit it good," Leo said. "The Major Leagues get all the best wood and we get what's left. If he had good, solid wood, it probably would have went out of the park. You can't figure that one out. How do you break a bat and almost hit it off the wall? We will take it, that's the kind of roll that we are on."
Petersen's hit scored two runs and ended up as a long single with Placzek held at second base. Petersen carries a .367 average and is tied for the team-high with 19 RBIs.
"It was an interesting swing, because honestly, I got the ball pretty good," Petersen said. "I thought I got it on the screws. There must have been something wrong with the bat, or maybe it was just its time to break."
Placzek went 3 of 3 with a walk and a three-run double that hit off the top of the wall in left-center field and caromed back into play in the second inning.
"I hit it pretty good," Placzek said. "I thought it was gone. It's whatever. I am kind of upset that it didn't go out, but three runs score, so it's not a big deal."
He leads the team in multiple hitting categories with a .436 average, .593 on-base percentage and .564 slugging percentage.
"I am not usually in the 3 hole," Placzek said. "It's kind of different. You get guys on, you just go up there swinging."
Then, Justin Bethard (2-1) settled in and worked 5.1 innings. Hays, which has stolen bases 75 percent of the time this year, lost two runners on steals, including Placzek. He hadn't been caught this summer, but slid past the second base bag on the wet turf.
"It was a grinder," Leo said. "We did what we had to do to win. Our offense did well early, and then the kid settled in. He did start making some pitches and he shut down the running game a little bit, got a little quicker to the plate."
Left-hander Chandler Hawkins (4-0) worked seven innings of three-run ball for the win. Hawkins worked in and out of jams throughout the night and allowed six hits and nine strikeouts against six walks. Liberal scored all three runs in the fifth on two singles, a hit by pitch and a two-run double that landed just inside the right field line by Sam Pack.
"Chandler is the reason why this game went as successful as it did," Petersen said. "Talk about filling up the zone, keeping everybody involved. Did a great job."
Logan DeRosier, who has struggled some this summer, worked a scoreless eighth and David Owen pitched the ninth. The team chemistry, though, helped the team stay loose. One time, the Larks were batting. The entire team ran from inside the dugout to the dugout railing to help the squad. The locker room blared loud music. Multiple players stayed after to watch the Miami Heat force overtime in the NBA Finals.
"The team chemistry on this team is unbelievable," Leo said. "They get along so well together. They are in sync. They enjoy, they pull for each other. They are on the same page, and it's kind of a fun bunch to be with."