Larks drop rare first round loss at NBC
By NICK McQUEEN
WICHITA -- For the second straight season, the Hays Larks struggled in their first game at the National Baseball Congress World Series at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The only difference this time was the Larks weren't able to bounce back.
Three first-inning errors, some base-running miscues and an unsuccessful late gamble all were factors in the Larks' 2-1 loss Monday to the Greeley (Colo.) Grays.
It was the Larks' first NBC-opening loss since 2000, ending a streak of 10 straight first-round wins, and dropped them to 29-12 for the summer.
"We came out, I don't know if we were nervous or what it was, but we had some jitters early," right fielder Austin Darby said following the loss. "We settled in, played well defensively and made the plays we needed to -- double plays when we needed to.
"We also just didn't hit the ball like we normally do," Darby added.
Those three errors, which led to both of Greeley's runs in the first inning, scarred an otherwise solid outing for starter Justin Ziegler, who pitched a complete game, scattering seven Greeley hits with four strikeouts to one walk.
Ziegler (5-2) allowed a single to Greeley's Zach Wilson to lead off the game, then an error by Larks' shortstop Elvin Rodriguez put two on.
One pitch later, on a double-play attempt, Larks' second baseman Zair Koeiman lost his footing and the throw from third baseman Joe Betcher sailed into right field and scored the first run.
Two of Greeley's hits came in that first inning, and an uncharacteristic off-night for the Larks' offense prevented the Larks from making up for it.
Both of Greeley's runs were unearned.
"It was a tough play at second base," Larks manager Frank Leo said.
"Zair lost his footing a little bit on that double-play ball. He slipped on the turf and stumbled a little bit. It was good throw by Joe.
"(Ziegler) settled in and did a tremendous job, we just didn't hit enough early," Leo added.
Greeley starter Bo McClavey kept Hays off all night, but Koeiman did record a triple in the first inning for the Larks, and Mackenzie Handel drove him home for the Larks' lone run.
From the second inning on, a pitching duel ensued, with McClavey pitching through eight and the complete game from Ziegler.
"He mixed up really well," Darby said of Greeley's starter. "He wasn't anything over-powering, he just pitched the count, kept us off-balance, and were just weren't swinging like we should have."
In the sixth inning, Darby bounced an 0-2 offering over the right field wall.
Initially, it was ruled a home run, but after a conference, the umpires made the ground-rule double ruling, giving the Larks just their third baserunner since the first inning. Darby finished 3 for 4 on the night, while Handel was 2 for 3.
Those two, along with Koeiman and Rodriguez, were the only Larks to record a hit.
"You have to take what you can get. We still had someone at second base, and we couldn't get it in," Darby said. "We weren't on our game tonight. Hopefully, we come back Wednesday sharper than we were today."
The game was just the second time this season the Larks scored just one run, the other being a 2-1 (10 innings) loss to Derby. The Larks had been averaging 6.9 runs per outing this summer.
"We squared some balls up and got some runners in scoring position, but he seemed to make the pitch when he needed to," Leo said.
After that, the Larks didn't get a runner until the ninth when Handel led off the inning with a double off the right-field wall. Tito Andino came in to run, and Darby hit a shallow liner on a 1-1 pitch to left field with no outs.
Andino was signaled home by Leo and Greeley left fielder Eric Ferguson made a spot-on throw home to record the out. Had Andino stayed at third, he potentially could have scored the tying run on Ryan Busboom's fly-out to deep center field in the next at-bat.
"We did some things the kids competed. ... Probably should have held Tito up at third base," Leo said. "...just got a little too greedy banking on a bad throw at the plate, and trying to go for a win right there with Darby on second.
"It's a gamble," Leo added. "You have to make a quick decision. I was hoping he would bobble it on the pickup. With nobody out, it was the wrong decision, but you have to move on to the next game."
Of the five Jayhawk League teams to qualify for the NBC, the league-champion Larks suffered the only loss.
El Dorado won 14-2 in the late game Monday against the Katy (Texas) Collegians.
Hays plays in the 10:30 a.m. session Wednesday against the loser of today's game between the Wichita Prospects and the San Luis Obispo (Calif.) Blues. Leo said Joey Begel (3-2 with a 1.98 earned-run average) is scheduled to start for Hays.
"We have to grind hard," Darby said. "Grind it out every at-bat, every play. You have to bust your but and work hard, and hope things fall in your favor."
After the loss in the first round in the 2000 World Series, the Larks battled all the way back to the title game, and finished second.