By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- After a rough start in June, Hays Larks catcher Ollie Goulder started to hit better in July, including a walk-off, two-run single against Derby on July 23. Three days later, Goulder left the Larks for about 10 days to see friends and family back home in Cave Creek, Ariz.
Goulder arrived back in Wichita late Tuesday night and met the team for early batting practice Wednesday morning.
Even with the break and travel, Goulder continued his hot hitting, going 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. His offense and eight superb innings from Andrew Heck helped the Larks defeat the Plaza Tire Cappahas from Cape Girardeau, Mo., 9-2, in the first round of the National Baseball Congress World Series on Wednesday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
"I had such a rough start," Goulder said. "I am glad that I actually climbed out of that hole hitting-wise to get more respectable numbers."
The victory helped Hays extend its season-best winning streak to nine games.
The Larks (28-14) also won their seventh straight first-round World Series contest. Hays will play in a winners' bracket contest at 5 p.m. Friday against the Canejo (Calif.) Oaks at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Eddie Carl (5-4) is the probable starter.
Eight of the nine Larks in the starting lineup collected at least one hit in Hays' 15-hit attack, which included 14 singles. The Larks manufactured several rallies and delivered one sacrifice bunt, stole three bases and hit-and-run often against the Cappahas. Five players had multi-hit contests, including Rafael Valenzuela, who finished 2-for-4 with a triple, two RBIs and a run scored.
"We got some guys that can steal bases," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "They pick and choose. One time I did run them, but most of the time, they are picking and choosing on their own. What's important is when they get to second base then the guy behind them gets the base hit, and we did that."
Heck (5-0), the team's ace all year, continued his outstanding summer with another brisk outing. The fast-working right-hander covered eight innings in just over 100 pitches, allowed two runs (one earned) with seven hits and no walks against five strikeouts.
"It all goes with the pitching and we knew going in that Andrew was going to give us a great outing," Leo said. "He competes so well and he throws strikes. The kid is such a fierce competitor and it is fun to watch him compete. He is not going to back down. I don't care who he is going against. He is not going to back down against anybody."
Last summer, Heck posted a 3.10 earned-run average in limited work that included a quality start in the World Series when Hays ran out of pitching. After a strong spring for Duquesne (Pa.) University, Heck has a 1.74 ERA in 67 1/3 innings with a 52/12 strikeout-to-walk rate. Helped by an improved changeup and strong command, Heck leads the team in nearly every pitching category.
"His ability to mix pitches and throw strikes for all of them," Goulder said. "You see him throw a lot of 2-1, 2-0 off-speed pitches. People are sitting dead red fastball. He can throw that for a strike, he can keep people off-balance. He doesn't have to throw it 95 to get it by you, because if you are thinking changeup, that fastball is going to beat you."
Goulder fashioned a different summer after playing his spring ball for Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College. A strong defensive catcher, Goulder struggled offensively, carrying a .159 average (7-for-44) into July. Since then, Goulder, helped by hitting coach Doug Dreher and better pitch selection, has hit .400 (14-for-35) and raised his average to .266.
"He got in a groove," Leo said. "I felt like the last 10 games of the summer, Ollie's swing was coming back. He had some big hits. Obviously the walk-off base hit against Derby, It wasn't just the hits, it was his swing that was looking a lot better. He is starting to make more consistent contact."
At the start of the year, Goulder had his elbow up and his hands wrapped. After working with Dreher, Goulder has shortened his swing.
"It's a better path to the ball," he said. "I am (also) swinging at strikes and the first problem was that I was swinging at balls. It's hard enough to hit strikes. You have to swing at strikes. I am seeing the ball a little bit better, better pitches to swing at."
After taking his break, Goulder came back to Wichita and made his second appearance in the World Series after he played for the Prescott (Ariz.) Blazers two years ago.
"I really liked it, and that is why I really wanted to come back so bad," he said. "I really enjoyed the experience here in Wichita."
On Wednesday, Goulder tied the game at 1 in the third when he walked and scored against losing pitcher Brad LaBruyere. Down 2-1 in the fifth, Hays scored two runs each in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.
"Small ball game was working for us to try to get us going," Leo said.
Hays collected four singles in the fifth, including run-scoring hits from Brandon Eckerle and Valenzuela. In the sixth, Goulder lined a two-run single to right-center and singled in another run in the seventh. The eighth inning yielded Valenzuela's triple and an RBI groundout by Rick Devereaux. Eric Rose finished the victory with a scoreless ninth.
"I thought we did a great job of (manufacturing) today to try to get the offense kick started," Leo said.