By RANDY GONZALES
After not making the NBC World Series for the first time since 1991 last summer, several members of the Hays Larks returned this year, vowing to make it back to the season finale in Wichita.
"Several of them came back for one reason -- that was to get the Larks back to the NBC -- and they accomplished that," Hays manager Frank Leo said.
Hays (28-16) finished second in the Jayhawk League race to earn an NBC berth, and will play Crestwood, Ill., on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
At the .500 mark in early July in the league race, the Larks played .688 ball down the stretch to earn a World Series berth.
"It wasn't an easy road," Leo said. "To finish how we did is a tribute to these guys."
Right-hander Justin Ziegler, who started the season pitching out of the bullpen, got his first start June 28, beating Dodge City 5-0. He threw seven shutout innings while allowing one hit. He made four more starts and finished the regular season 4-0 with a 1.66 earned-run average. He has allowed 22 hits in 431βΡ3 innings, with six walks and 35 strikeouts.
Ziegler will pitch the NBC opener against Crestwood.
"We move Zieg out of the end of the game and turned him into a starter, it's reaped benefits for us," Leo said.
Leo is happy with his pitching for the World Series. Left-hander Kirk Jewasko (3-3, 4.30) and right-hander Pepe Gomez (1-2, 5.79) are in the rotation, and right-hander Andrew Heck, one of the team's top pitchers last year, joined the Larks late in the season and is in the mix as either a starter or reliever.
"They've turned it up," Leo said of his pitching staff, which has a 4.16 team ERA. "Kirk Jewasko has had some good outings late. Pepe Gomez, outside of a couple outings, has been good for us. ... Andrew Heck is going to be in the mix, either out of the 'pen or as a starter for us; going to give us some good options there."
The Larks' closer is side-arming right-hander Michael Burchett, who has a 1.32 ERA and 10 saves.
"We know we got Burchett at the end of the game," Leo said.
The Larks' hitters are batting .307 as a team, led by infielder Cody Gougler and outfielder Aaron Cornell, both hitting .363 for the season. Gougler has two homers and 30 RBIs, and Cornell has seven homers and 31 RBIs.
Second baseman Sean Wilson is batting .340 with one homer and 22 RBIs, and outfielder MacKenzie Handel is at .329 with three homers and 30 RBIs.
Outfielder Jon Ryan is batting .322 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs, both best on the club.
Crestwood is a familiar foe for Hays. In 2009, the last time the Larks were at the World Series, they rallied for a 9-8 win over the Panthers.
"Crestwood, we had a memorable game two years ago where Andrew Heck had a walk-off base hit up the middle," Leo said. "We were down 7-1 at one point that ball game.
"Crestwood has been a very formidable opponent for us," he added.
Hays' side of the bracket has some perennially tough clubs.
"Crestwood, Alaska, Santa Barbara -- they're all in our bracket," Leo said. "We'll take it one game at a time, and get after it."