By NICK McQUEEN
With the way things have been going lately, there hasn't been much work available for Hays Larks closer David Owen.
So, when called upon Sunday night in the Larks' series finale with the Derby Twins at Larks Park, the Arkansas State University product was a little rusty.
In a see-saw battle with the Larks leading 5-4, Owen admitted he was a bit on edge after a rough eighth inning of relief.
He shook it off, though, and eventually saved the one-run win for Hays, its 21st in the Jayhawk League.
"I was a little nervous to be honest," said Owen, who recorded his team-leading fifth save of the summer. "I hadn't throw in a while, because we really haven't had that many close games."
The win pushed the Larks to 29-11 overall and 21-10 in league play, two games up on Wellington in the league race. Derby fell to 16-20, 13-19.
In a game where the Larks had to battle back twice, Owen came on in the eighth and wasn't quite as dominant as he had been in his previous 17 appearances. He walked the first batter he faced in the heart of the Twins' order, Jason McMurray, who eventually advanced to second. Then, a little luck went the Larks way. Dylan Boston, a thorn in the Larks' side all night, had a line drive to short stop with McMurray on his way to third, but the ball bounced off McMurray's ankle.
"That's a nice win for us. We'll take it," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "The top of their order is good and their bullpen is very good."
After that play, Owen recorded a fly out for the third out, then pitched a perfect ninth with two strikeouts to seal the deal.
"I just couldn't find my release point, so I got a little nervous," said Owen, who has 28 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. "In the ninth I cam out and I was doing alright, but I still wasn't confident I could pinpoint where I wanted, but by the end of the night ..."
The thrilling finish came after Clayton Garland provided the Larks with heroics in the fifth. After the Larks fell in a 4-3 hole, Garland produced his third hit of the night. His single drove in Aaron Cornell and Ty Gilmore to give Hays its first lead. The previous inning, the Larks left the bases loaded after scoring a run to tie the game.
"You always will be disappointed when you have offensive opportunities," Leo said. "You won't cash in on every one of them. We had a chance to break that game open and didn't get it done.
"Clayton Garland, like he's done all year, comes up big for us," Leo added. "We were going to sac bunt originally, but he swings good against lefties (Derby pitcher Jaime MacLean)."
In the second inning, Garland gave Hays its first run when he connected on the first pitch he saw for a solo home run to right field. An inning later, Brent Gillespie did the same thing to pull Hays within 3-2.
Gillespie then tied the game with a fly out to center in the fourth before Hays left the bases loaded.
Derby scored its fourth run with two outs in the fifth against Larks newcomer Ross Vance, who made his Larks debut. DJ Carr came in to pitch against Boston, who had a two-run homer to put Derby up 2-0 in the first, and a double to put Derby up 3-1 in the third. Carr (1-0) got Boston to fly out and eventually earned the win.
"We put him in a tough spot," Leo said of Vance, a West Virginia signee. "He looks like he handles left-handers well, so we'll see.
"We don't have a whole lot of time to make some decisions," Leo added. "We still have to make some pitching moves, because we're still pretty thin."
The win Sunday came after a disappointing 3-2 loss against Derby on Saturday night where the Larks wasted a complete-game gem for starter Nick Goza. Goza gave up three runs (all unearned) in the sixth inning after an error at shorstop. It was Goza's first loss of the summer.
"We didn't play well (Saturday)," Leo said. "He pitched a heck of a ball game, but had one minor bump, and they took advantage of it."
Still, Hays took two of three in the series, and guaranteed it will finish no worse than second in the Jayhawk League.
The top two teams earn a berth in the "Championship Week" of the National Baseball Congress World Series. Still, one more win -- either on the road against Dodge City on Wednesday or at home Thursday against the A's -- will wrap up Hays' second consecutive league title.
"We know we have to win one more game to clinch," Owen said. "We just have to keep doing what we do best."