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Parker overcomes sluggish start for Eagles

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Kade Parker isn't certain how or when he injured his right knee. After the spring season for Hays High School, Parker took some time off. He missed the first part of the Hays Legion summer. When Parker returned, he still felt pain. Parker will have surgery after the season to clean up the scar tissue that has built up around the bone, but is expected to return in plenty of time for basketball season where he is one of HHS' top players.

Still, Parker has played in 20 of the Eagles' 41 games and delivered a strong summer. He is one of several Eagles who has considerably elevated their statistics from last summer and the spring season.

This week, Parker is expected to start in left field and be the Eagles' No. 3 pitcher at the Class AAA state tournament at Larks Park. Hays (24-17) plays Leavenworth in the first round Wednesday night, and the eight-team, double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday.

After a slow start, Parker carries a .400 average, second-best on the team, and has a 4-2 record and 1.94 earned-run average.

"Hadn't seen live pitching for about a month since the school season," Parker said of his recent surge. "I had to get my confidence back up. Same with approach and try to go for contact lately instead of just swinging. I have gotten a lot of bloops lately. That will work."

Parker has 19 singles among his 22 hits, but also has walked 15 times. His .528 on-base percentage stands second.

"He is one guy who is probably not going to strike out a lot, and he is going to find a way to put the ball in play," coach Brad Kelly said. "He has found ways to get on base. He might not hit a shot to the gap, to the wall every time. He finds ways, he find holes in the defense, and puts it in play. Luckily for us, he has been getting on base quite a bit."

Ace Layne Downing and Parker have significantly improved from the high school spring season. Downing (5-2, 1.70 ERA) pitched three innings for the senior Eagles last summer, but was one of the Junior Legion's top players. Parker also played Junior Legion and never had a Senior Legion pitching appearance until this summer. Both players have filled roles left by Josh Heifner and Austin Unrein, two of the Legion's top pitchers on the state title in 2012. Hays returned just a couple of players from last summer.

"It's really good," said Hays catcher Jake Sedbrook, a longtime teammate of Parker and Downing on multiple levels. "When they are on, they are on, and it's really fun to just watch them dominate hitters and for me to be a part of that. Kade will hit you with some offspeed, and then he will throw a fastball right by you, and Layne is also the same way. He has a pretty good offspeed, and then he has a definite fastball that just catches some hitters right off guard."

Parker has made eight appearances with six starts. He has delivered four complete games and two shutouts with a 28/11 strikeout to walk rate in 39.2 innings.

"He has been solid for us outside of maybe one start," Kelly said. "Once again, he is just a strike thrower. He is not really going to walk a lot of guys. The key for him is going to be getting ahead of guys, because he has got some pretty good offspeed.

"His curveball is pretty good," Kelly added. "He has got a little knuckleball that he can throw, but the key to throwing those pitches is to get strike one and strike two here early on, so he can strike guys out. When he gets into a situation where he has to come with a fastball, he tends to maybe get hit a little bit more."

As well, center fielder Dan Bittel, who batted .284 last summer, has raised his average to .350 and leads the team with 29 steals in 31 attempts. Bittel has significantly cut his strikeout rate and has struck out just 14 times this year. Sedbrook batted .206 last summer and struggled again in the spring, but has raised his average to .275 in the summer.

Marcus Altman has a .202 average in 84 at-bats, but Kelly said Altman's swing "is good."

"You just keep thinking that eventually he is going to break out and get a hit," Kelly said.

John Griffith, in his first year of varsity baseball at any level after he went to WaKeeney-Trego High School, carries a .306 average. Trenton Henningsen will come up from the Junior Legion and provide depth.

"Last year, we had a lot of good players, and this year, we have guys that surprise you every once in awhile, and we have all been around each other for a long time, so there is that team-building mentality," Sedbrook said.