By AUSTIN COLBERT
WICHITA — Hays Larks manager Frank Leo wasn’t about to let the night end without talking about his ace pitcher, left-hander Chandler Hawkins, on Saturday.
“Chandler was the man tonight. He put us on his back,” Leo said. “Our offense wasn’t doing anything. He knew he had to keep throwing up zeros. Outstanding job.”
Hawkins threw 8.1 innings, giving up four hits and recording six strikeouts in the Larks’ 1-0 win against the Casa Grande (Ariz.) Cotton Kings in their first game of the National Baseball Congress World Series Championship Week at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Despite a shaky first inning, Hawkins settled in and was nearly perfect until reliever David Owen closed out the final two batters to send the Larks on in the winners' bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
Hays (24-10) will face the Hutchinson Monarchs at 4 p.m.today.
“First game sets the momentum,” Hawkins said. “I was just happy that the coaches put the first game in my hands and I did the best I could with it.”
Hawkins (6-2) needed to play his best because Casa Grande pitcher Brandon Fauklner was equally effective. He struck out eight Larks in six innings of work.
Neither team got a runner beyond first base until a double by Hays left fielder Clayton Garland in the fourth inning. A wild pitch allowed Garland to take third base, but Fauklner struck out the next two Larks to end the threat.
“You’ve got to force action,” Leo said. “This tournament’s key about not striking out with men in scoring position.”
The Larks had another good chance to score in the fifth when Ty Gilmore was hit by a pitch, loading the bases with two outs. Hays wasn’t able to take advantage when the inning ended after Aaron Cornell’s fly ball.
The teams were scoreless into the seventh, when Trey Higginbotham replaced Fauklner on the mound for Casa Grande after a leadoff walk to the Larks' Spencer Neve.
Jake Placzek’s bunt moved Neve to second base, but Gilmore struck out for the second out of the inning.
But Cornell was able to redeem himself for leaving them loaded earlier, getting a single to move Neve to third. The throw by Casa Grande shortstop Ashton McCoy to first ended up near the Larks’ dugout, allowing Neve to walk in for the score.
Leading 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, Hays made things interesting. The first Casa Grande batter of the inning was hit by a pitch, when what looked like a routine out turned into an error by Cornell in center field, giving Casa Grande runners at second and third with only one out.
Enter Owen, who finished off the final two batters to preserve the win, his sixth save of the summer.
“Last year we lost that opener 2-1 and had to fight back through the loser’s bracket,” Leo said. “This gets the monkey off the back, so to speak. We can take a deep breath but we don’t have much recovery time. We are back at it tomorrow.”