By CONOR NICHOLL
In Hays Larks manager Frank Leo's eyes, center fielder Brandon Eckerle is the same player that earned the nickname "Mr. Quiet," collected a six-hit contest versus Salina, wreaked havoc on the base paths with his speed and picked up second team all-Jayhawk League honors in 2008.
"He still plays the game hard," Leo said. "Man when he hits the ball, you better be ready, or he is going to beat it out. He is the same hard-nosed kid."
Eckerle, who led the team in games played, at-bats and steals last summer, has already locked down two positions on the 2009 Larks: starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. In Hays' 3-1 start, the veteran Eckerle is the only player to hit in the same spot in the batting order in all four contests.
"I know what to expect coming in," he said. "Coming back here, it's comfortable. I am staying with the same host family."
Eckerle, helped by some bunting work in the fall and spring seasons at Michigan State University, carries a .400 average and three steals. He is one of four regulars hitting .400 or better.
"He is a great kid to have on your side," Leo said.
The Larks are scheduled to open Jayhawk League play today at El Dorado. Game time is 7 p.m. Hays will have two games at El Dorado, then travel to Derby on Thursday before returning home this weekend against Liberal.
The Larks will start Travis Lumby (0-0), Eddie Carl (1-0) and Andrew Heck (1-0) in the three road games.
In 2008, Eckerle wasn't used to the summer-collegiate scene and started slowly before his six-hit game against Salina on June 24 pushed his average from .254 to .323. He eventually hit .298 with 25 RBIs and a team-best 24 steals, top 10 in the Larks' single-season annals.
"Last year was a new experience and had a lot of adjusting at first," he said.
After Eckerle returned to Michigan State, he honed his bunting skills, a tactic that has paid off in the summer.
"I worked a lot on that this past spring and fall," he said. "It's become something that I like to use a lot. It goes down the same as a hit in the scorebook."
Eckerle batted .270 in 54 games for the Spartans and, along with 2008 Larks catcher Eric Roof, were two of the four Michigan State players to start every contest. Under first-year coach Jake Boss, Jr., the Spartans reached the Big 10 tournament for the first time since 2004 and finished 23-31 overall, 13-11 in the conference.
"Offensively, I didn't have the numbers that I would like to have," Eckerle said. "I struggled a little bit, but I was in the lineup every day and did some things to help the team. Overall, the team did better, and that's all that matters."
Eckerle also has helped Hays pick up three early non-league victories. He reached base five times in the season opener against Lindsborg and in 10 of his first 11 plate appearances. In the first inning of the season's second contest, Eckerle laid a perfect bunt single down the third-base line. A night later, Hays trailed 3-1 to Denver in the fifth inning. With one out, Eckerle saw Cougar first baseman Ian McKnight playing back. Eckerle pushed a bunt past the pitcher's mound and between first and second for a hit. He later scored on an RBI double by Jason Morriss.
"Just get something going," he said. "The first baseman was playing back, and if you get anywhere between there, you are going to beat it out. That is what I am hoping to do."
Dreher's coaching helping
After the season's first three games, Hays had several players struggling, including third baseman Josh Garcia (.100 batting average) and catcher Ollie Goulder (.167). As a team, the Larks had hit just one homer.
Before Saturday's night game, former Lark, Hays High School graduate and first-year assistant coach Doug Dreher had players in the batting cage for extra hitting at 2:45 p.m., before going on the field for batting practice.
"Doug knows hitting," Leo said. "He knows the mental game, he knows the physical game. He is going to bring a lot to these guys with his experience."
In Saturday's game, Garcia went 3-for-5 with a two-run homer and four RBIs.
"Josh is a quality hitter," Leo said. "Had good numbers this spring. We just need him to settle down a little bit. I just think he was trying to do too much."
Goulder homered in the sixth inning, one of three home runs hit by the Larks in a 12-1 victory. After practice Monday, Dreher took most of the hitters into the batting cage and pitched until dark, offering tips and encouragement to each batter.
"Not that he turned them around, that it was totally him, but just him out here getting them focused and talking little things and tweaking little things, I think was tremendous," Leo said.
Lewton coming back
Hays High School graduate and Fort Hays State University pitcher Andy Lewton is working his way back from labrum surgery and Tommy John surgery. Lewton, who hasn't thrown for more than a year, has worked two shutout innings with a hit, two walks and a strikeout.
"Lewton is doing fine," Leo said. "Both of his areas where the injuries were, were not hurting at all. His overall body is a little sore just from getting used to pitching again."
Two players made their first appearance in Larks' camp during Monday's practice: catcher-outfielder Joe Huwer from Wenatchee Valley (Wash.) Community College and outfielder Codi Harshman from University of Arizona. Huwer is a returning starter who batted .305 last summer, third-best on the club. He finished his last final exam on Friday, drove back home to Boise, Idaho, and then made a 161βΡ2 hour trek to Hays.
Harshman hit .250 in 32 at-bats for Arizona in the spring. Harshman's teammate, infielder-outfielder Rafael Valenzuela, is an addition to Hays' roster and should join the team by the weekend. Valenzuela batted .277 in 39 games for the Wildcats. Ben Turner, an outfielder-first baseman from the University of Missouri, will join the team Thursday.
The Tigers' season is finished, but Turner headed back home to be with his family. His younger brother is Jacob Turner, a high school senior from Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis and a potential top-10 pick in today's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The Turners are holding a draft party at their home today.