By CONOR NICHOLL
The Hays Larks carried a three-run lead against Dodge City into the final two innings Monday night at Larks Park. Larks manager Frank Leo expected the bullpen to close down the win. Instead, the relief corps had another subpar outing and permitted three runs in the eighth and four more in the 10th in an 8-4 Jayhawk League loss.
"The bullpen has got to take care of business and they didn't tonight," Leo said. "That has been our M.O. We just don't know who is on when we pull them out of the 'pen. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are not. When you come out of the bullpen, you have got to be on. This summer, that's the way it has been. It has been too hit and miss."
The bullpen inconsistencies is the main reason why Hays continues to sit in the middle of the Jayhawk League standings. Hays, which is not assured of a berth in the National Baseball Congress World Series unless it finishes in the top two in the league standings, stands in third place at 16-12 overall, 12-10 league.
"Second place is the guarantee," Leo said.
Haysville leads the conference with an 18-8 mark, while Liberal is second at 16-10. Hays and Liberal start a critical three-game series tonight in Liberal. The first contest is the completion of a suspended game that will start in the eighth inning. Closer Larry Rodriguez will begin the suspended game and ace Andrew Heck will start the regularly-scheduled contest.
"Right now this ballclub needs to decide if they want to get there (to the NBC)," Leo said.
Overall, the pitching staff has posted a 4.21 earned-run average and a .263 opponents' batting average. No reliever who has pitched a full season has an ERA under 3.60. In the last three summers, solid bullpens have helped the Larks finish in the top-six at the NBC and win two Jayhawk League titles. From 2007-09, Hays posted team ERAs of 3.39, 3.66 and 2.98 and had opponents' batting averages of .239, .235 and .239.
"Not throwing enough strikes and then when they do throw strikes, not quality strikes," Leo said. "Too inconsistent. They may throw a quality strike, but the next pitch is right down the middle. We are not very consistent out of the bullpen. If anyone has watched this ball team all summer, that is how we have lost ball games. When we get to the end of the game with Larry Rodriguez, we have got a pretty good chance, but we can't expect our starters to go eight innings every day."
On Monday, Hays scored single runs in the second, fifth, sixth and seventh, while Dodge City (9-17, 15-24) scored a run in the fourth off Brad Propst, an Oklahoma State University product who made his second start of the summer for Hays. Propst worked six innings, allowing one run on five hits with eight strikeouts and no walks.
"It's a lot better this time out," Leo said. "It looks like he is getting a little stronger."
Hays' plan was to use Vincent Littleman, Andy Lewton and Mark Phillips for three outs apiece to cover the seventh, eighth and ninth. Littleman worked a scoreless seventh and Lewton came in for the eighth. Lewton, a Hays High School product who pitched for Fort Hays State University this spring, saw his ERA balloon to 5.84 after he permitted three runs, getting just one out. Lewton yielded a single and walk to open the inning before Stephen Castiqlione ripped a double to left-center that drove in a run.
"A lot today I think was pitch call on my part," Larks catcher Ollie Goulder said. "Vinny came out today and threw the ball excellent, the best I have seen him throw. Andy didn't have bad stuff. The first batter, we worked ourselves into a count where we had to throw a fastball. He hit it, but it happens sometimes, Then, another kid we burned over with the fastball and he came back with it and he went left-center for a double. I thought we had him again, but that is probably my fault there, not bad location."
Brock Green followed with a sacrifice fly. Next, Goulder thought Dodge City batter Trey Whaley would look fastball.
Lewton threw a breaking ball and Whaley grounded a base hit through Lewton's legs and up the middle to tie the game.
"Andy had a little bad luck and some bad decisions behind the plate and pitch calling," Goulder said.
Phillips relieved, worked out of the jam in the eighth and pitched a scoreless ninth. Phillips, who normally throws just three outs in an appearance, was left in for the 10th. Relievers Jamie Young and Riley Welch and infielder Cam Brown were all unavailable after attending a wedding this weekend. Phillips (1-3) was ineffective in the 10th, permitting a walk, single, a double to Green and a single to Whaley.
"You got to give them a lot of credit for hitting the ball, especially in the right spots," Goulder said. "Right spots, right time."
Jeff Jenkins, recently picked up from Lake Land (Ill.) Community College, finished the game with his first appearance with Hays as the Larks suffered another late-inning loss.
"The bullpen has to do it for us," Leo said.