By CONOR NICHOLL
Greg Bieker, a former all-state player for Hays High School and a two-time all-conference outfielder for Fort Hays State University, had never played summer baseball in his collegiate career before this year. In the last month, Bieker has played for two teams in two leagues, joined the Larks in midseason, and helped Hays defeat Liberal 4-3 on Tuesday night at Larks Park.
Bieker saw his first start with the Larks on Tuesday, went 1-for-3 with a double, sacrifice fly and two RBIs and carries a .500 average (3-for-6) with three RBIs after his first week of play.
"Summer ball is a completely different game than school baseball," Bieker said. "It's been a blast."
Bieker, a starter for Fort Hays in 2008 and 2009, had help from his brother, Jeff, in finding a summer team. Jeff Bieker, a former professional player and FHSU's all-time record holder in multiple offensive categories, played for the Madison Mallards in 2004 and 2005, and helped the Mallards win the Northwest League Championship.
Jeff contacted the Northwoods League and told them his brother needed a team. Madison had all of its full summer contracts signed but gave Greg a 20-day contract. Before Bieker left to head north, he worked out with the Larks and talked with Hays manager Frank Leo, also Greg's high school coach at Hays High.
"He said that if things don't go well, I'll keep you mind," Bieker said.
After three weeks, Bieker batted .200 and his contract wasn't renewed. He headed back to Hays and joined the Larks for their road series against Dodge City on June 20 to 23.
"I was actually the first to contact (Leo) and I said, 'Things are going well, but we have a full roster and there is basically no way I could stay,'" Bieker said. "They couldn't keep any guys. We had the top hitter in the league and they couldn't let him go to play on another team. It was just one of those things that the opportunity presented itself and I am glad to be back."
Bieker was expected to pinch-hit and see minimal playing time in the early going. He was hit by a pitch as a pinch hitter in a 10-inning victory against Dodge City and had two pinch singles in wins Friday and Sunday against El Dorado. He earned his first start Tuesday when he played right field and batted sixth.
"We didn't bring him back here to sit on the bench," Leo said. "We are going to give everybody a chance. He is swinging it pretty good."
In his first at-bat against Liberal starter Don Lisi, Bieker launched a ball that was home run distance down the left field line but was foul by several feet. In his second at-bat, Bieker nearly homered, hitting an RBI double that crashed high off the wall in left-center against Lisi, a pitcher Hays had seen several times in the last two years.
"Slider was pretty sharp," Bieker said. "When it was down, it was a tough pitch. I think a lot of them I struggled with that at first. He had a good changeup as well. But if you were lucky to get a good fastball to hit, you get a good pitch to hit. If that slider stayed up, that was also a good pitch to hit, depending on the elevation."
Bieker tied the game in the ninth on a sacrifice fly off BeeJays closer Bobby Duran, and moved Jason Morriss to third base. Morriss eventually scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch.
"When a guy looks like he is getting hot and put some good swings on it, you need to get that bat in the lineup somehow," Leo said.
Through 18 games, Morriss holds a rare feat among Larks players: He is the lone player to start in every game. Only Morriss and Rick Devereaux have played in all 18 contests and center fielder Brandon Eckerle has played in 17 games with 17 starts.
"He is a veteran, knows how to play the game, keeps coming to the yard every game to play the game hard," Leo said of Morriss said. "He understands the game and when a player understands the game, he knows the little things that need to happen. The big plays you have to make. He anticipates things, and plus he is a very good player."
Morriss, the starting second baseman, has been Hays' top offensive threat, carrying a .373 average with eight doubles and 15 RBIs, both team bests. A native of East Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, Morriss has added power since he traveled to the United States.
This spring, he batted .317 with eight homers and 52 RBIs for Angelo State (Tex.) University before capably filling Rich Michalek's spot at second base. Michalek was a two-time all-Jayhawk League player, last year's No. 2 batter and leader in multiple offensive categories.
"The power has come since I came over the States," he said. "I didn't really have a whole lot of power back home. Being able to play everyday, it's something where you have to look after your body, stay healthy. Even though I have been getting a little beat up a little bit, a few bumps and bruises, but treated them right and staying healthy."
Morriss, moved to fifth in the lineup in recent games, has made a few adjustments in his swing. He finished 3-for-4 with two runs scored on Tuesday. He singled in the fourth to start Hays' first rally and then singled in the sixth and ninth.
"Always tweaking a few things here and there, just depending on how pitchers are throwing and stuff like that," he said. "Like (Tuesday), they threw a lot of off-speed pitches. It's something that I've always struggled with. I got a couple hits off the curveball early and they started coming back with a fastball. I thought that hit up in the middle at the beginning of the game was big to get some runners on base for the guys behind me to do a good job."
Heck strong again
Larks right-hander Andrew Heck continued his strong season with seven solid innings. Five days ago, he worked nine innings and earned a no-decision in a 3-2, 10-inning loss to El Dorado. Tuesday, Heck had another no-decision.
"Heck gives us a chance to win every night," Bieker said. "You got to love that. He works quick and he gives us a chance to win every night, so you can't ask for anything more than that from your starter. He has had some tough decisions. We need to get him a win here and there, but there comes a time when it come. But has long as he gives us chances to win, we are a pretty good ball club."
The efficient Heck had 63 pitches through five innings and threw just less than 100 pitches in his outing.
He is 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA in a team-high 331βΡ3 innings after being used as a spot starter last year. Heck has 25 strikeouts against nine walks this season, the best ratio on the club.
"Pitch count," Leo said. "Early in the game, He had some quick pitch innings. He doesn't walk a lot of guys and keeps getting after it."
Heck allowed two solo homers in the first and fourth inning and was nicked for an unearned run in the fifth when Rafael Valenzuela dropped an infield popup. Yet Heck recovered and worked two more scoreless innings.
"When we came back in, he was very positive and I thought that was a good thing because we could have went down that time," Leo said.