By CONOR NICHOLL
After a 13-3 loss to Liberal on June 14, Hays manager Frank Leo gathered the Larks' players near the third-base dugout at Larks Park. Leo was stern with his team, a club that was 4-5 overall, 1-4 in the Jayhawk League and off to the franchise's worst start since 1998. He emphasized playing better baseball, always giving full effort, and continuing the strong Larks' tradition.
"This is not Larks' baseball," Leo said. "This is what the people of Hays are not used to seeing."
Two days later, Hays lost 13-1 and dropped to 4-6. The Larks, though, quickly turned their summer around and won 28 of their final 38 games. Overall, Hays finished 32-16, earned a runner-up finish in the Jayhawk League and had a solid run in the National Baseball Congress World Series. The Larks completed their season Thursday with a 5-2 loss to El Dorado and earned fourth place at the World Series.
This summer marked the 10th straight season Hays has captured at least 30 victories. It marked the eighth time this decade the Larks have earned a top-10 finish at the World Series, including the fifth occasion the Larks have finished fourth or better.
"They kept plugging away. We started very, very slow and maybe some people had some doubts about Larks' baseball, but these guys turned it up and they played up to Larks' tradition," Leo said. "They made it a great effort, had a great run at the end of the year, gave our folks back home some good memories during the regular season. What I am proud of with this ball club is they didn't let Larks' tradition die."
Just before the season, Leo lost multiple players counted on to be in the starting lineup, including his projected ace, shortstop and third baseman. But the Larks received contributions from every player on the roster, including stalwarts that joined the team for opening day and reinforcements that came throughout the year.
Center fielder Brandon Eckerle, a second-year Lark and returning all-Jayhawk League player, batted first for the second straight summer. Labeled by Leo as one of the team's best leadoff hitters in the manager's 27 years, Eckerle, who paced Hays with a .386 batting average, collected a team-high 68 hits and 26 steals. He finished tied for 10th in Larks' history for hits in a single season and tied for eighth in steals.
"I am very happy for Brandon," Leo said. "He is a quiet kid, he just goes about his business and keeps better every year. It's going to be a year to remember for everybody."
Andrew Heck, another second-year Lark, saw a big jump from 2008 and became the best multi-faceted player in Leo's tenure. He went 6-0 with a 1.79 earned-run average in 751βΡ3 innings, all team-bests. At the plate, Heck, who played nearly every position, hit .360 and led the team in on-base percentage (.450) and slugging percentage (.532), and batting average with runners in scoring position (.500). He delivered a walk-off, two-run single to cap a six-run comeback and a 9-8 win against Crestwood (Ill.) in the World Series.
"Just the complete package," Leo said. "We have had some guys have some great offensive years. When you put a 6-0 record with his ERA together with his offensive production, that is a big-time year."
"He can do it all," second baseman Jason Morriss said.
Two constants all year were Morris and right-handed pitcher Eddie Carl. Morriss batted .312 with a team-best 13 doubles, while Carl, finished 5-5 as the No. 2 starter. Hays, though, didn't start playing well until it filled in several spots and solidified its starting rotation. Rafael Valenzuela, added in mid-June, finished the summer with a .367 average, second-best on the team.
"A great hitter; I would definitely play him pool side next game if I had an opportunity. Seems like he puts the barrel on the ball about every time," Sedalia (Mo.) manager Jud Kindle said at the NBC.
Kurt Wunderlich, originally a reliever, made his first start on June 13, became the No. 3 starter and finished 6-0, including a shutout in the World Series. Wunderlich and Heck became the fourth and fifth pitchers in team history who finished 6-0 or better.
Left-hander Eric Rose, who had a 14.29 ERA after the summer's first 11 games, had a 0.88 ERA in the final 37 contests. He finished with eight saves, second-most in team history. Right-hander Chris Larsen returned from injury and solidified the No. 4 spot in the rotation. Catcher Ollie Goulder, a .144 hitter in June, batted .370 in the final six weeks. First baseman Rick Devereaux, after a slow regular season, hit .382 with 17 RBIs in his final 14 contests. Third baseman Isaac Garcia and pitchers Patrick Cooper and Devyn Rivera helped Hays in the NBC.
"When we were a few games back in the Jayhawk League, we just really wanted to battle back, battle all year," Morriss said. "(The World Series) was always in the back of my mind, but you don't want to think about it too early. It was always a goal to get here and see how far we can take it."
Hays, last in the conference after the 4-6 start, secured a berth in the World Series when it finished 17-13 and in second place in a historically competitive Jayhawk League. El Dorado won the conference title and played for the NBC World Series crown Saturday night, while Liberal was third at the World Series and Derby tied for ninth.
According to research by Jayhawk League statistician Cheryl Kastner, it marked the fourth time since 1999 four Jayhawk League teams finished in the top 10 at the World Series. In addition, this year was the second time three Jayhawk teams earned a top-four NBC finish.
"They kept it rolling," Leo said. "We didn't win a Jayhawk League title, but we made a heckuva run to finish second and give ourselves a shot at the tournament. They got here and they deserved to get here and they played outstanding when they got here."
At the World Series, the Larks won their first game and lost their second. In the losers' bracket, Hays enjoyed a complete game shutout from Wunderlich against the San Diego Waves. Then, Cooper, the 2008 Larks ace who joined Hays after an all-star season in the Cape Cod League, tossed a complete game against Nevada (Mo.) Heck followed with eight innings versus Sedalia and his second NBC victory that solidified another top-10 finish.
"Coach Leo expects a lot out of his guys," Nevada manager Ryan Mansfield said.
"They play hard. Pitching is always pretty solid. They can swing the bats. They can do a number of things at the dish. They always play pretty solid defensively. As compared to last year's (Larks club that won the Jayhawk League), it is pretty much the same Hays team."
In the Larks' sixth World Series contest, Hays was down 7-1 entering the sixth against Crestwood. The Larks, in one of the best comebacks in Leo's era, rallied to win 9-8 on a two-run, walk-off single by Heck. Morriss scored the winning run when he slid past the Crestwood catcher and touched home plate.
"I can't fault their effort," Leo said. "The heart they played with in this tournament was second to none."
On Thursday, Carl pitched a no-hitter for 61βΡ3 innings before Hays committed three seventh-inning errors and lost 5-2 to El Dorado. The final loss, though, didn't trump a great turnaround after a difficult start.
"Just outstanding," Leo said. "They came together and became a very good ball club."