By RANDY GONZALES
In a span of a few hours on Tuesday, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo went from wondering if his team was going to make the National Baseball Congress World Series to preparing his club for the season finale.
Leo received a phone call Tuesday afternoon from the NBC informing him his team had made the field for the 75th World Series in Wichita. With Jayhawk League champion El Dorado claiming the automatic berth after winning the NBC Midwest Regional, that allowed the second- and third-place teams in the Jayhawk to take the league's two automatic bids. Hays has clinched the second spot in the league standings, while Liberal is assured of finishing third.
So, the Larks' sixth straight win, 5-2, over Dodge City Tuesday night at Larks Park, was nothing more than a tuneup for next week's NBC opener for Hays.
The Larks will play an undetermined opponent on Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Leo said he was told another Jayhawk team, fourth-place Derby, also could get a bid into the season finale, if a California qualifier doesn't make the trip due to financial constraints.
Leo said the Larks' 7 p.m. non-league game today against Junction City -- the last home game of the regular season -- is still on, but Hays will not play Thursday's scheduled makeup game at Dodge City, since it will not factor into the league standings. Leo is trying to line up home-and-home games with Junction City this weekend to stay sharp for the World Series.
"We can get a little rest and get a little work in," Leo said. "Guys need a little rest."
Hays hitters appeared to rest their bats after a big first inning on Tuesday. The Larks sent 10 men to the plate and scored five runs in their first at-bat against Dodge City starter Evan Cunningham.
Leadoff man Brandon Eckerle beat out an infield single, Sean Wilson was hit by a pitch and Rafael Valenzuela walked to load the bases for Rick Devereaux. His single scored Eckerle, and Wilson scored on the play when the relay throw to the plate skipped between the catcher's legs. A grounder by Jason Morriss scored Valenzuela to make it 3-0. Newcomer Isaac Garcia hit an RBI single and later scored the final run of the inning on Codi Harshman's groundout.
After that, Hays (25-14 overall, 17-13 Jayhawk) was held to three hits for the rest of the game by Cunningham and reliever Cruz Sedillo.
"Their guy got better," Leo said of Cunningham, who allowed one hit in his final four innings after allowing four hits in the first. "We faced him before. I'm surprised we got on him early.
"He's been tough on us before, kept them in the ball game," Leo added.
Cunningham might have kept Dodge City (16-27, 5-25) close, but the Athletics had little luck against Hays starter Kurt Wunderlich. In five innings, Wunderlich (5-0) didn't allow a run while giving up three hits, with one walk and six strikeouts.
The A's got on the board in the sixth when Larks reliever Calvin Lewis surrendered a two-run homer to Chris Ciesla to make it 5-2. After Travis Lumby pitched a scoreless seventh, Dodge City threatened again in the eighth against Chase Barrera. A walk and a single to start the inning brought the tying run to the plate in Ciesla. The A's right fielder hit a line drive that appeared destined for center field, but second baseman Morriss made a diving catch to his right for the first out of the inning. After another single loaded the bases, Barrera got Mark Radmacher swinging at strike three on a low, outside pitch off the plate for the second out. Zach Atkins then hit into a fielder's choice to end the inning.
Eric Rose got the final three outs for his seventh save.
Now, it's on to the World Series.
"The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Leo said. "It is a tough summer. I'm proud of the kids."
Wilson had Leo diving for cover in the fourth inning. While Leo was coaching at third base, Wilson sent a line drive screaming over Leo's head, forcing the Larks manager to the seat of his pants to avoid the foul ball. The Larks' announcer then played over the PA system a Tarzan yell, much to the crowd's amusement. ... Tonight's final home game of the regular season will have $1 prices for all items at the concession stand. ... The Community Assistance Center asks Larks' fans to bring one non-perishable item to tonight's game, to help fill the shelves at the food bank. ... Tonight's probable starter is right-hander Chris Larsen (4-2).