By CONOR NICHOLL
In the seventh inning, Hays Larks assistant coach Dusty Washburn, a former Larks' first baseman, spoke to the squad in a quick team meeting near the third base dugout.
Hays had its season-high 10-game winning streak snapped with a one-run loss to Derby on Sunday. On Wednesday, the Larks were in danger of dropping two in a row for the first time since June 27.
However, Washburn's talk helped Hays rebound from a one-run deficit. The Larks received a game-tying single from center fielder Aaron Cornell in the seventh and went on to win 4-2 against Dodge City in the regular season finale at Larks Park.
"Washburn said, 'How are you going to think about it whenever you are going up to the World Series?,' " Cornell said. "It's meant a lot to me. He said, 'Are you going to go up there losing your last two games in the season?' "
When Larks first baseman Ryan Busboom caught a game-ending fly ball, most of the 850 fans rose and gave Hays a standing ovation. Hays, which clinched the Jayhawk League title for the first time since 2008 on Saturday, finished the regular season 29-11 overall and 23-11 in the conference.
The Larks went 19-4 at home, part of the reason for the club's outstanding play down the stretch. Hays finished 12-2 in its last 14 contests and moved from third place to first.
"That's a tribute to these guys," manager Frank Leo said. "It's not easy to play in July. It gets hot. The summer gets long. We were banged up. We didn't have a bench, but you know, these guys found a way. It's one of those teams, 'Gosh, can we play another 10 games here? I know these fans would love to see another 10 games.' We are not done yet. We are just going to regroup and get it going again."
Hays will play in the National Baseball Congress World Series on Monday against the Greeley (Colo.) Grays at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Five of the six Jayhawk League teams qualified for the NBC, including Dodge City (24-16, 19-15), Liberal, El Dorado and Haysville.
The bracket was released Tuesday afternoon. Hays will play at 7:30 p.m.
In a game that had virtually no bearing in the standings, Hays used seven pitchers in a team-pitched contest and gave Jon Ryan (nagging back issue) another day off. Still, the Larks wanted to finish with a victory.
Hays took a 1-0 lead in the first on doubles from Cornell and Mackenzie Handel. Dodge City tied the game in the fourth. In the sixth, second baseman Zair Koeiman delivered another highlight reel play on a ball hit up the middle. Koeiman, running at full tilt, stuck his arm out, barehanded the bouncer, fell down and flipped to shortstop Elvin Rodriguez for the force play. The play even surprised Busboom at first. He had to quickly cover the bag at first for Rodriguez's relay.
"He has done some crazy things, but that is one of the best ones that I have seen," Cornell, who played with Koeiman at junior college, said. "That's something that you see on ESPN on Friday nights."
Dodge City took the lead with another run in the seventh before Washburn's meeting helped turn the contest.
"(He) understands Larks baseball," Leo said. "Dusty has had some talks with those guys before. He does a great job. The players respect him. It must have hit home to them. This is it, this is your last hurrah in front of these fans and let's finish strong and they did that."
"I think that kind of got under some guys' skins and helped us out there," Cornell added. "It's a great feeling."
Catcher Brett Lang led off with a double to left center field. Then, designated hitter Tito Andino hit a ground ball to third base.
Lang was caught in a rundown and the A's tagged him out. Andino eventually stole second. With two outs, Cornell fisted a single over second base against left-hander and losing pitcher Ty Thomas, a Fort Hays State University product.
"I was sitting on fastball outside," Cornell said. "I wasn't going to let him beat me with that. In this league, a lot of guys throw you fastballs away, so I was just sitting there. Surprisingly, he came fastball in. I tried fighting it off or something and somehow blooped it over. I wore it off the hands a little bit."
In the eighth, third baseman Joe Betcher broke the tie with a line drive single to right field on a 3-2 pitch. Austin Darby later scored on an error. Caleb Hawkins (2-2) earned the win in relief. Jason Heflin collected his third save of the season when he closed out a 1-2-3 ninth. After the final out, the Larks celebrated with a trademark of 2012: the team ran and jumped in celebration near second base. Coupled with the fan's ovation, it was a perfect way to conclude the regular season, Leo said.
"I don't know if you could have scripted it any better," he said.