By CONOR NICHOLL
Andrew Heck and Brandon Eckerle were ready to run out to their positions to start the Hays Larks' season-ending contest against Dodge City on Wednesday night at Larks Park. Then, Larks manager Frank Leo surprised the duo.
"Frank said, 'Before you guys do that, we have got a little special something for you guys,'" Heck said.
Leo awarded Heck and Eckerle, two three-year Larks who rank among the all-time leaders in several statistical categories, with plaques in a ceremony at home plate, along with their host families.
"Really nice thing that they did for us," Heck said. "I appreciate it. You get a little emotional out there."
Then, Heck and Eckerle paced the Larks to an 8-1 victory and helped Hays finish the year with a 21-17 record. The Larks did not qualify for the National Baseball Congress World Series, the first time Hays has had no postseason in 20 years. But Heck and Eckerle, veterans of two top-six finishes at the NBC, held Hays together this year.
Heck, the top two-way player in Leo's 30-year tenure, went 6-0 with a 2.44 earned-run average in 551βΡ3 innings, all team bests, and batted .291 with six homers at the plate. Eckerle, the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the third consecutive summer, hit .282 with 19 steals in a team-high 149 at-bats.
"When you have veterans like that who know what the prize is at the end of the year to keep them driving, I think that was very important," Leo said. "Those two three-year guys plus some two-year guys, they kept pushing (the team). If we were a totally young team, I don't know what would have happened this summer because we were so up and down."
Overall, Eckerle, a Michigan State University product, played in 129 of a possible 138 games, batted .322 with 166 hits and 69 stolen bases. Eckerle is on the single season lists for hits (68 in 2009) and stolen bases; he and Andy Wilson (1996-97) are the lone players in Larks history to steal at least 24 bases in two years. Also known for his defense, Eckerle's range helped him haul in multiple possible extra base hits. Through Eckerle's career, Leo called him "Mr. Quiet" for his calm demeanor and steady production.
Heck began his career as a backup infielder and spot pitcher three years ago. He solidified a place on the 2009 Larks when he threw the final game of 2008, an NBC contest against Liberal that ended at 5 a.m.. With the Larks out of pitching, Heck, who had worked just 132βΡ3 innings all season, pitched a quality start in a 7-1 loss -- the only defeat of Heck's career.
The right-hander finished 14-1 with a 2.21 ERA in his Larks' tenure. His .933 winning percentage ranks No. 1 in the Leo era.
"That is really special, especially when you open up these programs and see some of the names that are No. 1 in all the other categories," Heck said.
This season, Heck continued his customary pitching style of working fast and pounding the strike zone. He walked just 0.97 batters per nine innings, second-best for a single season, and was Hays' ace for the second year.
"He is a really good pitcher," Larks catcher Sloan Soulia said. "He is a great athlete. When he gets on the mound, he has just got that mentality of 'I'm going to locate every pitch' and he takes it pitch by pitch instead of inning by inning or game by game. He lives in the moment and that makes him a great player."
Heck, after a first team all-Big East season this spring at Duquesne (Pa.) University, had to find a new school when the Dukes folded their program. Heck signed with Oklahoma State University, a team that wasn't on his radar when the summer started. The Cowboys contacted him in early June and saw him play several times in Wichita. At first, OSU wanted to use Heck as just a position player. But they saw him throw a complete game against Liberal and said he could pitch as well.
"I really liked it down there, the coaches were great," Heck said. "They wouldn't stop telling me that they wanted me to come there. I thought it was a good situation, a good fit."