By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- In the first two innings Wednesday, the Hays Larks committed four errors, made a pitching change and allowed seven runs to the Crestwood (Ill.) Panthers. Hays trailed by six runs entering the bottom of the sixth. Even with the deficit, Andrew Heck and his Larks teammates remained poised, a hallmark of a terrific finish to a strong summer.
"Later in the season, we kind of get comfortable with leads," Heck said. "I don't know if the coaches have been, but as the team, you can sense that, we are down a few runs, 'so what, we can get them.' Kind of laid back. We are playing easy. We are not uptight when we get down in games."
The relaxed Larks, led by a tremendous relief effort from Devyn Rivera and rallies in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, pulled off one of the more remarkable comebacks in Frank Leo's 27 years as Hays manager. The Larks, on a two-run walk-off single from Heck, edged Crestwood 9-8 in a losers' bracket contest in the 75th annual National Baseball Congress World Series at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Hays committed five errors that led to five runs, but kept coming back.
"We got to keep battling the whole time," said Jason Morriss, who scored the winning run. "We are not going to give up at all."
Hays, which has won its 13 of its last 14 games, was down 7-1 before rallying. The Larks finally tied the game at 7 in the bottom of the eighth. Crestwood scored a run in the ninth before Heck singled to win the game. Pinch-runner Kyle Peterson scored easily from third and Morriss slid over and around catcher Scott Palmer and touched home plate for the winning run. He was instantly dogpiled at home plate in a celebration usually saved for championship games. Crestwood coaches argued the call, but television replays showed Morriss was safe.
"I was going no matter if the coach was sending me or not," Morriss said. "On the crack of the bat, I was just going as quick as I could. I definitely touched home plate. He didn't tag me at all."
The six-run comeback moved the Larks into the "sweet six" and the quarterfinals that start today. Hays (32-15 overall, 5-1 NBC) will play Jayhawk League champion El Dorado, the lone undefeated team in the World Seies, at 7:30 tonight.
Hays went 2-5 versus El Dorado this summer.
In Leo's eyes, Wednesday's comeback was akin to several victories in the 1995 NBC when current Houston Astro Lance Berkman led the Larks to the franchise's first runner-up finish. However, this comeback came in a lower-scoring era with wood bats. The victory bumped Hays to 24-7 since an 8-8 start.
"We had Berkman back in '95, but that was with aluminum bats and Berkman hit a couple of three-run home runs to get us back in several times," Leo said. "With the wood bat, to be down with this deficit, that is just a tribute to these guys and the kind of ballclub they have become. They have become a very good ballclub. Where we were earlier in the summer to where we are now, this is an outstanding ballclub."
Hays, which had received 26 innings from its starters in three losers' bracket victories, started right-hander Chris Larsen in his first tournament appearance. No. 2 starter Eddie Carl was available on full rest, but Leo wanted to save Carl for today's game. Larsen, though, last just four outs and allowed seven runs, three earned. Anthony Albano drove in two first-inning runs with a triple and Morriss made an error to let in another run. In the second, Hays shortstop Sean Wilson opened the inning committing an error. A bunt, two singles and a walk followed. Rivera relieved Larsen with bases loaded.
"We felt good about Chris Larsen today; he just didn't have that two-seamer to run away," Leo said.
Rivera, making his third relief appearance after joining the Larks on Aug. 2, coaxed a double-play ball to Wilson, who mishandled the grounder. Bill Storrs followed with a grounder that skipped through third baseman Isaac Garcia's legs for another run and a 7-1 lead.
"We have turned a lot of double plays this year," Leo said. "Sean just rushed that a little bit."
Then, Rivera, the Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College ace this spring and a potential pro prospect, delivered 62βΡ3 innings of one-run baseball with six strikeouts against three walks and three hits. He didn't permit a run until the ninth.
"Keep it low," Rivera said. "Fastball, change, slider and curve. I felt like every pitch today was on. Probably one of my best outings. This is the most I have thrown in awhile."
"Tremendous job on Devyn's part to give us a chance to win," Leo said. "It's 7-1 and it still doesn't look like a very good chance."
The Larks didn't start their comeback until the sixth. Crestwood, the lone team that lost its first tourney game and was still alive, was low on pitching and had the second-worst earned-run average of the eight remaining teams. Joe Scumaci, a reliever, started and worked 52βΡ3 innings, including pitching around a bases-loaded jam in the fifth.
"I thought we rallied a few times and kept putting a little pressure on them and wearing them down," Leo said. "They didn't have much of a bullpen."
The Larks rallied for three sixth-inning runs. With two on and two out and one run in, No. 9 hitter Codi Harshman laced a triple down the right-field line.
The ball landed a few inches fair, scored two runs and brought Hays within 7-4. Leo said the hit "turned the corner."
"I think the momentum kind of shifted our way," Heck said.
Hays tacked on another run in the seventh on Rick Devereaux's RBI single and two more in the eighth to tie the game on two singles, an error, a balk and an RBI groundout from Brandon Eckerle.
Crestwood took an 8-7 lead into the bottom of the ninth with a double off Rivera, a passed ball and a throwing error from catcher Ollie Goulder trying to get the runner going to third on the play. Eric Rose (1-1) finished the ninth for the victory.
"We just knew that we had to string some hits together and just play some better defense and just get our pitching under control," Harshman said. "I think we just knew as a team that we needed to pick it up. No one said anything, we just knew we had to pick it up."
Down 8-7, Garcia opened the ninth with a single to center, his fourth hit of the game. After Devereaux hit into a force play, Morriss hit a slow chopper to shortstop Brycen Bell. Bell charged the ball, but threw wild to first. Devereaux moved to third and Morriss went to second. Peterson pinch-ran for Devereaux and Crestwood held a meeting at the mound as Heck came to the plate. Heck talked with Leo and received a scouting report from Morriss on left-hander R.L. Eisenbach.
"When they went out to talk to the pitcher, he says, 'this is a great place to be,' " Leo said. "I said, 'Yes, it is Andrew.' "
Morriss told Heck that Eisenbach had a "pretty sharp breaking ball." Heck considered sitting on the curveball first pitch and driving it up the middle. He let a first pitch curveball go by. On a 2-strike pitch, Heck grounded a single past the pitcher and into center field.
"I saw shortstop and second baseman were back, so I just had to get a ball in play," Heck said. "I knew after I saw the changeup, I figured he wasn't coming back fastball, so I was kind of looking curveball, and it was curveball or slider right there. I just tried to stay on it real well and hit it up the middle. I was happy when I saw it go through there."
Peterson tied the game and Morriss delivered his slide for the game-winning run. Morriss jumped into Goulder's arms before the Larks piled on top of him near home plate. The Larks' fan section punctuated the victory with a standing ovation.
"Those guys played with a lot of heart," Leo said with a smile.