By CONOR NICHOLL
Several hours before the Hays Larks played Dodge City on July 28, the team was on the field at Larks Park removing the tarp. In the outfield, a familiar face wore a big smile, and talked with Ben Turner, Codi Harshman and Kurt Wunderlich, among others. He even danced a little to the music piping in from the loudspeakers.
Rafael Valenzuela was back.
The fun-loving and perpetually smiling Valenzuela, one of the Larks' leading hitters with a .372 average, returned to Hays after an 16-day hiatus because of a wedding and family functions.
"It's real nice; I miss it," Valenzuela said. "Those two weeks were horrible. It's kind of nice to spend time with the family, but I miss it, I love playing baseball. I miss being out there with all of the guys, so once I got out there to the field, it's just joy, pure joy."
Since his return, Valenzuela is 4-for-14 with two RBIs and two runs scored. That included a 2-for-4 showing that included a triple, run scored and an RBI in the Larks' 9-2 victory against the Plaza Tire (Mo.) Cappahas in the first round of the National Baseball Congress World Series on Wednesday at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Valenzuela and Isaac Garcia, who also joined the Larks on July 28, have hit in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the Larks' lineup.
They have driven in six runs and scored five in four games. Garcia has six hits in 13 at-bats.
Among players on the roster all year, Valenzuela is batting .372 with a .439 on-base percentage, second-best on the team, behind leadoff hitter Brandon Eckerle. Valenzuela's .372 average in Jayhawk League play ranked third in the conference behind Eckerle (.421) and El Dorado's Wes Cunningham (.418).
Using a closed stance, Valenzuela leads the team in slugging percentage (.547) and his three homers are tied for the team lead among players currently on the roster.
"I have always been like that ever since I was a kid," he said. "I was a little open in high school and I had a leg kick, but my dad talked to me because I was not getting as much power as I was wanted to, so he closed me up a little bit, raised my hands up, and now I am hitting home runs and doubles. It's been fun."
Valenzuela's strikeout rate of one per every 12.3 at-bats stands second behind Eckerle. Garcia has one strikeout in 13 at-bats.
"They consistently put good swings on the baseball," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "What I like is that is your 3-4 (hitters), you hope your 9-1-2 are getting on base so your 3-4-5 are in RBI situations. You want guys that will consistently hit it and not strike out."
Hays is scheduled to play its second-round game today against the Conejo (Calif.) Oaks at 5 p.m. today. Hays is one of four Jayhawk League teams scheduled to play today. Hays (28-14) is on a season-high nine-game winning streak. Last year, the Larks lost their second game en route to a seventh-place finish. Eddie Carl (5-4) is today's probable starter.
After he played for the University of Arizona this spring, Valenzuela was looking to get selected in the amateur draft in June. Instead, he went undrafted and joined the Larks in June. He hit well and quickly moved into the No. 3 spot in the batting order. On July 12, though, Valenzuela left the team for his cousin Anais' wedding in Mexico.
"She said that if you get drafted then you don't have to come. and I said 'I didn't get drafted.' and you said that you were going to promise me that you were going to come, so I had to go," Valenzuela said. "We grew up together since we were kids, and all of our families were close. We are brother and sister, kind of."
Leo didn't know about the wedding until a week before Valenzuela left. At the time, he called Valenzuela's return "doubtful." Valenzuela, though, had planned on returning and contacted Leo in late July.
"I knew that I was coming back," Valenzuela said. "I told Coach Leo that I was going to leave for two weeks and go spend time with the family and go to a wedding, and that I was coming back for sure."
Valenzuela even kept his teammates in the dark about his return. On July 28, the Larks were pleased to see the third baseman-left fielder and power hitter back in Hays.
"The guys are pretty welcoming," Valenzuela said. "They asked me if I was coming back. I said I didn't know just so I could mess with them a little bit. So they were kind of sad, but when I got here, they put a big smile on their faces, so I think they are kind of happy that I came back there."
Upon rejoining the Larks, Valenzuela went 0-for-7 in his first two contests before a 4-for-7 showing in his next two games. He has kept the same approach all season. Simply swing at good pitches. Other than one at-bat on Wednesday when he grounded into a double play with the bases loaded -- "He chased a pitch up," Leo said -- Valenzuela has consistently swung at strikes. It's produced a strong season -- both before and after the break.
"Basically just leaving the bad pitches alone," Valenzuela said. "Just seeing the pitches, sitting on one pitch and when it's thrown, just try not to miss it and hit it hard somewhere, and it's been working out."