By CONOR NICHOLL
Patrick Cooper, who pitched for the Hays Larks in 2008 and at the end of 2009 and also was a Cape Cod League All-Star last year, was picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 36th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Cooper didn't sign and played spring baseball for NCAA Division I Bradley University.
After the collegiate season, Cooper hadn't planned on playing anywhere this summer. He would wait on his status in the draft, a 50-round process that starts today and runs through Wednesday. Then, Cooper changed his mind and made a choice he labeled "pretty easy."
"I thought maybe I should go play a couple games and get some starts in and get some work in, and I knew that I had an open invitation to come back to Hays," Cooper said. "(I) knew that it was going to be a good time and knew that (pitching coach Keith) Harper was great and I wanted to work with him."
On Sunday, Cooper started the season opener for the Larks, worked four shutout innings and earned the win in a 5-0 victory over the Denver Cougars at Larks Park. Then, two-way player Andrew Heck followed with another impressive performance. After he drove in two runs as the Larks' designated hitter in Game 1, Heck tossed four shutout innings in Game 2 and led Hays to a 3-0 victory over Denver (8-5) to complete the doubleheader sweep. Heck, a possible draftee, wanted to start his summer in Hays after two successful seasons with the Larks.
"I can't pass up that opportunity to come back for a third year, especially after the past two years as good as (manager) Frank (Leo) has treated me and the people of Hays have treated me," Heck said. "There is no better place to be, in my opinion, of playing summer league baseball."
In front of an estimated 1,200 fans, the Larks' pitching staff permitted four singles and allowed two runners to reach third base in the two contests. Right-hander Andy Lewton, a Fort Hays State University right-hander and one of eight returning Larks, worked two scoreless innings. Offensively, center fielder Brandon Eckerle, a three-year player, reached base three times and scored two runs.
"The nice thing about this club, you got a lot of guys that want to come back," Leo said. "Why do they want to come back? Well, you saw the atmosphere out here tonight. It doesn't get any better than that. The people appreciated the play these guys put on. They want to come back. The community just loves these guys."
Heck and Cooper have each enjoyed past success with the Larks. Last summer, Heck went 6-0 with a 1.79 earned-run average and batted .360 as the DH to earn first team all-Jayhawk League honors. Leo called Heck the top multi-faceted player he has coached in 30 years with Hays. Cooper was 8-3 as the Larks' ace in 2008 before he enjoyed an all-star season as a reliever in the Cape Cod League last year. Cooper returned for the Larks in the National Baseball Congress World Series and tossed a complete game victory.
"We know what they are going to give us," Leo said. "They are both veteran guys who work fast, they throw strikes, keep their defense sharp behind them. If we can keep that 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, we'll be pretty tough."
In Game 1, Cooper walked two batters in the first inning before settling in. He finished with seven strikeouts, two hits and two walks allowed in four innings. Lewton and Gonzaga right-hander Mark Phillips completed the shutout. Offensively, Hays tallied single runs in the second, third and fifth, and two in the sixth.
"It feels like it was just yesterday that I was out here," Cooper said. "But it was great to be back and it was nice to have such a good atmosphere first game out. The fans are great and the team is really getting along well together. I am just happy that I can come out and help the team win and get some work in at the same time."
Heck, who had his wisdom teeth pulled after the spring season and hadn't thrown in several weeks, fashioned another strong outing in the second contest. A fast worker, Heck retired the first seven batters and finished with six strikeouts against one hit and one walk for Hays' first back-to-back shutouts since 2007.
"We have a lot of younger guys that are not used to seeing plus arms on the mound," Denver manager Mark Cerullo said.
The Larks broke through with a run in the third off Denver starter Matt Patzner, a FHSU product, on an RBI groundout from Cody Gougler and scored two more in the fifth, including another Gougler RBI groundout. The Larks will complete the three-game series today with a single game starting at 7 p.m. Left-hander Levi Schlick, a former standout at Colby High School, is the probable starter.
"It's great," Heck said. "You just have the great memories of the past. To know that you are going right back out to it and start out the way tonight went, it is just a great feeling. It's a comfort. I think all of the guys are starting to enjoy it."