By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks pitching coach Keith Harper catches every pregame bullpen session by his starting pitchers. During the warmup, Harper pictures a six-inch square. If they are above, below, inside or out of the square, Harper knows the pitcher will struggle. On Monday, Larks right-hander Mark Phillips was consistently hitting the square. Afterward, Harper told Larks manager Frank Leo and assistant coach Doug Dreher it was the best bullpen he had ever seen Phillips throw.
"He was going to give us a good outing tonight," Harper said. "I just knew it because he right in that zone."
Phillips, formerly from Colby Community College and a Gonzaga (Wash.) University product, pitched a no-hitter in a 3-0 Jayhawk League victory against Derby at Larks Park. Phillips walked two batters, struck out seven and coaxed 11 ground-ball outs. It marked the first no-hitter of his career.
"Pure joy," Phillips said. "I don't know if I can really describe it. Just a great feeling."
By Leo's recollection, the outing marked the first no-hitter by a Lark since the 1980s and the second one in his tenure.
"That is one of the best pitching performances I have been able to experience in 29 years," Leo said.
The win moved Hays to 20-16 overall and 16-14 in Jayhawk League play. The Larks, who took three of four from Derby, secured third place in the league with two games left, both at home (tonight at 7 against Liberal and Wednesday against Dodge City).
Derby dropped to 20-23, 11-20. Phillips, a closer to open the summer, threw 113 pitches, easily his longest performance of the year. Phillips (2-3) threw a four-seam fastball, slider and changeup and ran into one jam all game.
"I was able to throw my slider for strikes all night," he said. "I was getting ahead with my fastball and I was able to finish batters with my off-speed. It worked every inning. I was mostly spotting my changeup to lefties trying to get them to chase outside a little bit. I was getting a lot of roll over ground balls with it. Everything just clicked tonight."
Phillips walked the first batter of the game, Garrett Bayliff. A sacrifice bunt and groundout moved him to third base, but Phillips ended the threat with a strikeout. In the second, Phillips came the closest to allowing a hit. Shortstop Elvin Rodriguez fielded Cole Waddell's grounder just behind second base and threw Waddell out in a close play at first. Two batters later, third baseman Zak Leonhardt charged Brandon Alexander's bunt down the third-base line for the putout.
"He did real well all night long," Larks catcher Sloan Soulia said. "His stuff had good movement. His fastball was firm. He was just on tonight. He had a real good game. Everything was smooth from him. A lot of sliders. I called changeup a couple times, but he didn't seem to want to throw it. Whatever he wants to throw is what he goes with."
Hays scored single runs in the first, third and sixth. Cam Brown delivered an RBI groundout for the first run, while Brian Martin singled in the second run against losing pitcher Garrett Groom. Leonhardt, batting .184 entering Monday, finished 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI double in the sixth.
Derby bunted three times in six innings for a base hit before the Twins changed tactics.
"Kept the ball down and threw three pitches for strikes," Derby assistant coach Chris Dobler said. "Very good outing. We were trying to break it up. After the sixth inning, we shut it down. Got to get hits the way we are supposed to."
After the first-inning walk, Phillips retired 19 straight before Ryan Jones walked in the seventh and was picked off.
To start the ninth, Phillips struck out Waddell on a 2-2 pitch and coaxed a grounder from Tyler Hancock. With one out left, Larks' fans got to their feet and started clapping. On an 0-2 pitch, Bayliff hit a ground ball to shortstop. The ball took a high hop, but Rodriguez fielded it and made the close play. Phillips was swarmed on the field.
"My heart stopped a little bit when it decided to take off a little bit," Phillips said. "Elvin just stayed with it and made a great play."
Thirty minutes later, Phillips still wore a big smile as parents and host families took photos. Phillips had tucked the ball from the last out inside his pants' pocket as a memento.
"That will be in my room for the rest of my life for sure," he said.