By CONOR NICHOLL
When ace right-hander Andrew Heck starts a game, the Larks are 7-0. When Heck doesn't pitch, Hays drops to 13-16. Right-hander Mark Phillips thought about the Larks' inconsistency before he took the mound Monday night. Phillips had opened the summer brilliantly as the team's closer, but had struggled for the last several weeks. First and foremost, Phillips wanted to pitch well and help the Larks move closer to a possible National Baseball Congress World Series berth.
"Just finish the season strong, just try to give them a quality start, just try to give them a chance to win," he said.
Phillips pitched a no-hitter in a 3-0 victory against Derby at Larks Park. The outing marked the high point of the summer for Phillips, a former Colby Community College and current Gonzaga (Wash.) University product. The right-hander improved to 2-3 and dropped his earned-run average to 3.86, tied for third-best on the team among pitchers with more than three appearances.
"Command of all three pitches and not afraid to throw any of those pitches in any situation," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "He flat challenged them. We saw that from Mark out of the bullpen earlier this summer. This was his chance to get out and pitch and have some fun for us. Tremendous job. That just only bolsters our confidence in what he can do for us as we go down the stretch and hopefully make it to the World Series."
Monday's appearance marked the 15th appearance and third start of the summer for Phillips. After a solid two weeks to open the season, Phillips returned home to Colorado for a wedding and missed nearly a week of league games.
"We came in looking for a closer," Leo said. "Pitched well early, left for a wedding, lost that edge, tried to find that edge."
When Phillips came back, the Larks gradually moved him into the starting rotation. In college, Phillips had been a starter at CCC, where he went 12-1 and earned All-America honors. At Gonzaga, though, Phillips pitched in relief.
On Monday, pitching coach Keith Harper had the option to either start Cory Jordan (1-2, 7.71 ERA) and use Phillips in relief, or start Phillips and use Jordan out of the bullpen.
"I just think that at this point in time, just because of how our pitching staff was, we needed to get somebody to step up," Harper said. "I decided to go with more experienced Mark Phillips. He had done it before at (Colby), it's just a matter of that Cory had not. Go with Cory behind him instead of Cory in front of him."
Harper normally talks to his pitchers after every half inning, offering advice or encouragement. With the no-hitter in progress, though, Harper spoke to Phillips one time, a reminder to warm up properly.
"I said, 'How did you warm up?' " Harper said. "You just kind of threw it up there, lobbed it, didn't finish your pitches. Didn't get like a rhythm. Your first two pitches were balls. I said that is what I am talking about. You can't go out there and throw soft and then in the inning, expect it to happen. That was the only time I said much to him. When he got that run, just don't say a word to anybody, you don't even talk about pitching, you don't talk about mechanics."
Throughout the game, Leo noticed his players tracking the no-hitter, believed to be the second one in his 29 years as manager.
"They started counting early and that dugout was pretty excited," Leo said. "It was one of those coaching moments that you want to sit back and enjoy."
After the final out, Phillips was mobbed on the mound and soaked in the win, a performance that helped the Larks secure third place in the Jayhawk League.
"I was in the zone all night," Phillips said.