By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- The Hays Larks never had a break or could find a hole in key situations in Sunday's contest against the Clarinda (Iowa) A's. The Larks were hurt by an odd play at second base that led to an ejection of designated hitter Andrew Heck, a near double play for Clarinda in the fourth inning, hard hit balls from Sean Wilson and Jon Ryan that curtailed rallies and a close play at first base in the ninth inning on a grounder from Cody Gougler.
The differences helped lead to a 7-6 season-ending loss in the National Baseball Congress World Series at Lawrence Dumont Stadium.
"That's why this is the best game in the world," Gougler said. "It's all the little things that can cause one game to be a win or a loss. Sometimes it's a crazy thing like that. But good game by both teams. It was fun. Hate to go out like that."
Hays finished 2-2 at the NBC after they didn't qualify for a season-ending tournament last season for the first time in 20 years. It marked Hays' shortest trip in the NBC since 2005. Hays, known for its comebacks through the summer, trailed 4-2 and 7-4 before it chipped away at the deficit. The Larks finished 30-18.
"That's the way we have done it all season," Gougler said. "It's fun to do it that way to get excited and to make it happen, but we ran out of outs, but that doesn't take away from the great season that the Larks had."
Clarinda, traditionally a strong program, also had its own struggles this summer. The A's lost their longtime general manager, Merl Eberly, in mid-June. Clarinda went 22-20 and finished second in the MINK North division. They went through several injuries and had to pick up a new second baseman and shortstop for the NBC. Clarinda won an elimination game that finished at 3:56 a.m. Sunday morning, went back to the hotel, slept, ate, then returned to the ballpark to face Hays.
"It's a fun time of the year right now for the kids," Clarinda manager Ryan Eberly said. "A lot of them want to go home, but winning cures a lot of things. We are pretty relaxed right now. We are pretty banged up, so I am really proud of this group."
Hays' Pepe Gomez, who struggled with a groin injury and shortened starts all summer, struggled through another appearance Sunday. Gomez went 21βΡ3 innings and permitted four runs. Clarinda nicked him for a run in the first and three in the third on five singles and a sacrifice fly.
"He didn't give us a chance to win," manager Frank Leo said. "He struggled with his breaking pitch. He could not get command of his breaking pitch and he has got to have that."
The Larks picked up two runs in the second, but it could have been more. Heck, who batted .556 (10-for-18) in his NBC career, led off the inning with a single to right-center. He tried for a double and beat the throw. But Heck slid on the slick field turf and went past the bag, where he was tagged out. Heck stood up and slammed his helmet down. The frustrated Heck made no movement to the umpire to argue the call, but the umpire still ejected him.
"I thought it was a pretty quick trigger on the umpire's part," Leo said. "These guys are playing with a lot of intensity. Andrew plays hard. Of course, they don't know Andrew. I think Andrew was more upset with himself. He was on the base. It's not something that Clarinda really earned to get an out. This is a tough place to slide on. The more I play on this stuff, I don't know if I am big fan of playing on this kind of field."
The Larks closed the gap in the third on a two-run double in the third from Sloan Soulia off winning pitcher Kyle Burkhart, but Clarinda scored three in the fourth off losing pitcher Matt Schmit. Schmit, who entered the game with a team-best 0.91 earned-run average, had only allowed three earned runs all season. He nearly escaped any damage. With two on and one out, Ryan Leonards hit a ground ball to third baseman Brandon Dixon, who stepped on third for the force play and threw across to first. Dixon's throw was barely late and Clarinda followed with a single and double for a 7-4 lead.
Hays tacked on another run in the fifth on a Soulia RBI triple. In the seventh, Aaron Cornell led off with a single and stole second. Gougler drove him home with a single, and Ryan followed with a line drive. Pitcher Connor Murphy speared the liner and doubled Gougler off first.
"That's just the way the game went," Leo said. "We couldn't get anything to go through. We needed that break."
In the eighth, Wilson grounded out to the second baseman with Elvin Rodriguez on second base.
"Little bit more to the right, it's a base hit and we have a tie game," Leo said. "Sometimes you think there are a lot of holes out on that field, but today it seemed like they had them all covered on us."
Gougler led off the ninth with a ground ball up the middle. Second baseman Kyle Simpson raced over, gloved and threw out Gougler, who slid into first base. Larks assistant coach Dusty Washburn told Leo "it was bang-bang and could have gone either way." Gougler was ejected for arguing the call. Two batters later, Soulia reached on an error, but was stranded.
"When it happened, yeah I thought I was safe," Gougler said. "I still think I was safe. I don't condone the way I acted. That doesn't represent the Larks in a manner that Coach wants us to represent. I think that was just a lot of the passion that I had for the game and this world series."