By CONOR NICHOLL firstname.lastname@example.org
A month before the season started, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo lost seven players, including his potential ace, starting third baseman and starting shortstop. The roster shuffling forced Leo to make dozens of phone calls to have a capable roster by opening day in early June. The changes, depleted roster and close losses resulted in a 4-6 start, including 1-5 in the Jayhawk League.
"You just don't get on the phone and make one phone call and replace seven guys in a day's time," Leo said. "It is going to take a period of time."
Leo picked up starting shortstop Sean Wilson in the season's first week, a player that has started 35 games, tied for the second-most on the club. Kurt Wunderlich and Chris Larsen, originally pegged as relievers, became the team's No.3 and No. 4 starters and combined for a 9-2 record. Rafael Valenzuela, a late pickup from the University of Arizona, is second on the team in batting average (.366).
After the slow start, Hays (27-14) finished the season on a 23-8 run and finished second in the Jayhawk League. Two months after Leo had a roster in flux, he now has a talented team that has won a season-best eight straight games entering the 75th annual National Baseball Congress World Series at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
"In the middle of June, we started getting more depth in our roster," Leo said. "Guys got to know each other a little bit better. We had some tough losses early on. I just think it was a combination. We started pitching it a little bit better. It all starts with that. Our offense got a little better and I think our roster got a little better. We got guys in, got positions filled."
Hays will open against Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Wednesday at 1 p.m. The Larks went 4-2 last year the season finale and tied for seventh. The year prior, the Larks earned their fourth runner-up finish under Leo. Hays also has finished second in 1995, 2000 and 2001. Right-hander Andrew Heck (4-0, 1.82 earned-run average, team-high 591βΡ3 innings) is the probable starter in the opener.
"They are usually traditionally a team that is going to win a couple games in the World Series. It's a big test," Leo said of Cape Girardeau.
Leo will use a starting lineup that features catcher Ollie Goulder, first baseman Rick Devereaux, second baseman Jason Morriss, shortstop Wilson, third baseman Isaac Garcia, left fielder Valenzuela, center fielder Brandon Eckerle and right fielder Codi Harshman. Garcia, who signed a contract to play for Hays in the fall, hurt his wrist in the spring and didn't join the team until last week. Wilson and Valenzuela were not on the original roster, along with four pitchers, including Chase Barrera (3-1, 1.84 ERA). The DH slot is filled by a combination of left-handed hitting Joe Huwer and right-handed batters Kyle Peterson and Heck, who will only hit when not pitching. Heck leads the team in slugging percentage (.526).
"Heck will be in the DH mix, too," Leo said. "If he is well-rested, possibly on defense somewhere. We want to protect his arm and keep him as fresh as we can and also use his bat if we have an opportunity, too."
The changing roster has produced more offense in July, a 6-1 record in one-run games since July 4 and improvement in several critical categories: pitching, defense and timely hitting.
"A lot of things come into play to stay in the tournament, but the No. 1 thing is pitching and defense and then timely hits and we have talked a lot about that the last couple games," Leo said.
Overall, this season's Hays team is stronger than the 2008 version that produced a 3.66 team ERA, made 1.92 errors per game and allowed 5.1 runs a contest. This season, the Larks have produced a 3.14 team ERA, made 1.41 errors per game and allowed 4.41 runs a contest. Since July 5, Hays has not seen an increase in overall batting average and power numbers. However, Hays' offense has averaged six runs a game after it scored five runs a contest in the first month.
Better hitting with men in scoring position and fewer strikeouts has caused the increase -- and helped the Larks go 16-4 down the stretch.
"Timely hits, we really have to bear down in RBI situations," Leo said.
Luck has played a role in several contests for Hays this summer and the World Series is expected to be no different. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium features a spongy artificial turf infield similar to Larks Park. Last year, Hays started a big comeback against Clarinda when a Clarinda pitcher slipped on the turf. Often, balls can take high hops off the turf, too.
"We have got some guys that can run, maybe can manufacture," runs, Leo said. "It's nice to be able to go down there and say we are going to beat people 7-2 and make it an easy game, but with the wood bat, things equalize out a little bit. With that bouncy turf, that is going to come into play a little bit, too."
Two players can stamp their names on the all-time Larks' lists in several categories. Leadoff hitter Eckerle, the team's lone returning all-Jayhawk League player, leads the team with a .409 batting average, 61 hits and 22 stolen bases. He will try to became the 14th player in Larks' history to bat .400 in a single season. Eckerle is five hits away from tying for 11th place on the all-time list. Last season, Eckerle stole 24 bases to tie for ninth in a single season. This year, he has 22 and needs two more to reach the top nine.
"Brandon, I feel very confident," Leo said. "He picks and chooses when he goes. He is going to have a good success rate."
Closer Eric Rose has eight saves, tied for second all-time with four other pitchers. Rose started the season with a 14.29 ERA in his first 52βΡ3 innings, but has all eight saves and posted a 1.02 ERA in the season's final 30 games.
"He has been very effective," Leo said.