By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Before Friday's doubleheader against the Denver Cougars, the Hays Larks players and coaches met with Tyler Sturdevant, one of the Larks' top relievers on the 2008 roster. Sturdevant, a senior from New Mexico State University, joined the Denver squad, a team that's closer to his hometown of Littleton, as he waits for the Major League Draft next Tuesday.

"It is always fun coming back, seeing where you played last summer," Sturdevant said. "I love this place. I love Hays."

The Larks won the first game 7-0 against Denver, and hurt by several defensive breakdowns, trailed 3-2 in the sixth inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, Sturdevant entered the game to face Larks' leadoff hitter Brandon Eckerle, a teammate on last year's squad. The two saw each other prior to the contest, but once the game started, the focus shifted.

"I talked to him a little bit before the game, but once it was game time, it was just another pitcher," Eckerle said.

Sturdevant coaxed a forceout from Eckerle and then retired the side in the seventh for the save and a 3-2 Larks loss. With the split, Hays dropped to 2-1.

Last season, Sturdevant helped Hays to a top-10 finish in the National Baseball Congress World Series. Used in several roles at the start of the year, Sturdevant became one of four pitchers Leo could use in late-inning situations. He finished witha 6-1 record, 3.57 earned-run average and a 34βΡ23 strikeout to walk rate in 351βΡ3 innings. He nearly signed with the Mets after the NBC finished.

"I really wanted to sign and I actually committed to them for about two or three hours," Sturdevant said. "I said I wasn't going to sign, but they told me that I was going to go play right away and I was going to have to wait until spring training came around and I wanted to go back and get my degree. I went back and graduated and got my degree. If that all falls through, I will be okay, I can sit back on my degree."

This spring, Sturdevant was used mainly as a starter for New Mexico State, where he posted a 7-5 record, 6.75 ERA and 88 innings. Most importantly, Sturdevant said his arm "felt good, which was all I was really looking for." Sturdevant had had Tommy John surgery in December 2006.

"Eighty-eight innings is the most I have ever thrown in my life," he said.

Sturdevant talked with "quite a few teams" as the draft approaches Tuesday, including the Mets, Cleveland Indians, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds. He will likely sign if drafted.

"I don't really have much to play with," he said. "I am kind of old for the draft anyways. I don't have another year to play with."

College graduated seniors rarely play summer ball (the Larks don't have any) and Sturdevant didn't call Leo for a spot on the Larks this summer.

"I didn't talk at all to Frank here and I got here and I said hi to him and everything, he offered and (said) if I would have called him, he would have put a place out there for me," Sturdevant said.

"There would have been (a spot), if he had said, 'hey Coach, if I don't get drafted, type of thing,' without a doubt," Leo said. "But he never did contact me to let me know. He didn't contact me so I just assumed that he was going to sit on the draft and see what happened."

Sturdevant made his first appearance of the summer on Thursday when he threw 21βΡ3 innings. He entered in the sixth inning against Hays. Eckerle hit the second pitch down the right field line, but the ball was foul by a foot. Then Eckerle, hit a hopper in front of the plate. Sturdevant raced in, and got a forceout to end the threat. In the seventh, Hays put two on but couldn't score.

"I thought his slider was not as sharp as what it was last year," Leo said. "From the beginning of July on last year, that slider was a pretty good pitch and I didn't think he had that great command of the slider that he had last year."

Soon after the game, Larks pitcher Eddie Carl walked over to talk with Sturdevant. Sturdevant met with former teammates and his host family from last season.

"Good to see them," he said. "I have kind of missed them and some of the guys who I played with last year."

Defensive play proves critical

One defensive play turned Game 2. In the third inning, Denver's Slade Sanders hit a groundball between first and second. Larks first baseman Josh Garcia picked up the groundball and threw past pitcher Chris Larsen.

The ball hit off the bottom of the dugout and stayed in play.

Larsen was slow to pick up the errant throw and Jacob Williford, who started the play at second, tried to score.

"He should have been following the ball," Leo said. "He should have seen it where it went. I just think he was disappointed. ...It was not a hard hit ball. It was one of those check swings that was hit in just the right place. He made a pretty good pitch."

Larsen picked up the ball, but his throw from Willford was late. Sanders finished up at third.

Williford's run ended up being the deciding run in a 3-2 game.

"That was the play that killed us," Leo said. "We don't cover first base. In close games, those plays get magnified. I know that was early in the game, you have no context of where the game is going to go, but you have to react. We will chalk that up to not having played for two or three weeks for these guys and needing to get back into the rhythm."

Larks win Game 1

Another odd play occurred in Game 1. With runners on first and second and Larks' right fielder Doug Dreher batting, the home plate umpire called a balk on Cougar pitcher Drew Firebaugh. Firebaugh still delivered the pitch and Dreher singled up the middle. Dreher momentarily paused and tossed his bat in the air. However, according to Rule 8.05, the hit is allowed if a pitch is thrown after a balk is called. Heck and Schippers both took off and Dreher eventually reached first safely.