By CONOR NICHOLL
This summer, the Hays Larks had its slowest start in more than a decade. When the calendar flipped to July, the Larks still hovered around the .500 mark and stood in fourth place in the Jayhawk League.
They needed to pass two squads to assure themselves a spot in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Once the month changed, Larks manager Frank Leo said his team "couldn't wait" any longer. They had to start winning to clinch an NBC berth.
"The time is now," he said.
The Larks made a late season run, finished second in Jayhawk League play and moved into the NBC. After starting 8-8, they finished 24-8 including a top-six finish in the NBC World Series in mid-August.
"It was just kind of fun to watch them compete in the World Series," Leo said a week ago, recalling the season from his office at Hays High School.
"We were kind of a good fit to play in postseason. We had a good defense, very good pitching and we had opportunistic hitting. You can go a long way in the tournament with that."
Hays moved into the championship round with a six-run comeback against the Crestwood (Ill.) Panthers. They eventually won 9-8 on a walk-off single from Andrew Heck, a terrific slide from Jason Morriss and a dogpile at home plate normally reserved for national championship celebrations.
"We have had some pretty big wins in that World Series, but the way that one happened, that has probably got to rank up there as one of the best," Leo said.
In his 27 years as Larks' manager, Leo recalled several big comebacks, especially with former NBC World Series MVP and current Houston Astro Lance Berkman in 1995.
However, that season, Berkman hit several comeback homers with an aluminum bat. In 2009, they used wood.
"7-1 is a remarkable comeback," Leo said. "It really is. With wood bats. With aluminum bats, it's a different story because the power of the long ball was a little more possible, but the wood bat, it's not."
In the championship bracket round, Hays' starter Eddie Carl carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against El Dorado. Then, Heck misjudged a fly ball in deep left-center field, and Hays eventually fell 5-2. El Dorado went on to win the championship. The Larks' regular season turnaround, deep run in the NBC World Series and comeback against Crestwood ranks as one of The Hays Daily News' Top 10 stories of the Year.
At first, though, the Larks started slowly and suffered several big losses in early June to Jayhawk League rivals El Dorado and Liberal. Hays began the year 4-6 overall and 1-5 in the conference, the franchise's worst start since 1998.
"This is not Larks' baseball," Leo said after a loss. "This is what the people of Hays are not used to seeing."
Hays struggled to gain consistency until the second half of conference play. Then, the Larks reeled off a six-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak to finish the regular season. That second surge included four close wins against rival Derby at home by scores of 3-2, 4-2, 6-4 and 7-6. One game featured a walk-off single from catcher Ollie Goulder, while another victory had a late inning grand slam from Joe Huwer and a walk-off homer from Rick Devereaux.
"That was a pretty good run, started generating momentum," Leo said.
At the NBC, Hays split its first two contests before they made a deep loser's bracket run.
Helped by tremendous starting pitching performances from Kurt Wunderlich, Patrick Cooper and Andrew Heck, the Larks won three contests by scores of 5-0, 2-1 and 6-2 to set up the Crestwood game.
"Do we have the horses to match up to somebody to stay in the tournament? We don't want to go down and just play a couple games," Leo said. "We want to go down and stay. I felt like with the depth we had, this was one of the strongest pitching staffs that we had going into the World Series, so I knew we had a chance to stay in it."
Leo and pitching coach Keith Harper decided to make a change in their starting rotation for Crestwood. Carl, the No. 2 starter, could have gone,
However, the coaches elected to go with No. 4 starter Chris Larsen, who had battled a bicep problem for part of the summer and hadn't pitched yet in the World Series.
"We weren't just thinking about that game, we were thinking about how can we win a national title," Leo said. "We felt like if we can piece together and Larsen can give us some innings, we would be in great shape to make a serious run."
Larsen, though, was knocked out in the second inning. Hays committed four early errors and Crestwood scored seven runs in the first two innings.
"I talked to several people (postgame) back here that turned the radio off," Leo said.
Larks' reliever Devyn Rivera, picked up shortly before the NBC, came in and provided 6 2/3 relief innings, allowing just one run. However, Hays still trailed 7-1 after five innings. In the sixth, Hays rallied for three runs.
"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."
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 inches fair and scored two runs.
"If we can get a couple here- that's the mindset that we had," Leo said. "If we can get a couple here and cut it to four and cut it to three and get that momentum rolling. Once you get that momentum rolling, the other team starts to feel it a little bit and tighten up and that's exactly what happened."
The Larks scored one in the seventh and two more in the eighth. Crestwood, though, took an 8-7 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
"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, Isaac Garcia opened the ninth with a single. After a force play, Morriss hit a slow chopper to Crestwood shortstop Brycen Bell. Bell charged the ball, but threw wild to first. Devereaux moved to third and Morriss went to second. Kyle 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 around the catcher for the game-winning run; Crestwood argued the call, but television replays showed he was safe. 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.
"Usually a dogpile in the World Series happens in the championship game, after the last out. We had one in the quarterfinal game because it was such a big win," Leo said. "You are down 7-1, who thinks you are going to come back?"