Hays High challenged the three-time defending Western Plains Diamond Classic champions for four innings, but Salina Central moved into the driver's seat to claim the tournament outright after a 7-2 win over the Indians on Friday night at Hays High Field.
The Indians were tied at 2 with the Mustangs after four innings before giving up three runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth.
Salina Central opened the fifth with a single from Zach Farmer and Brogen Richardson reached on an Indians' error. After Hay pitcher Cole Murphy notched a strikeout, the Mustangs got three straight hits from Ryan Dix, Ethan Speer and Luke Beatty to take control.
"I thought we competed well early and then we kind of let it slip defensively," Hays High coach Frank Leo said. "Too many defensive mistakes, and that's a very good ball club."
After scraping out runs in the second and third innings, Hays (10-5) was shut down the rest of the way by Salina Central starter Ethan Kickhaefer, who struck out nine.
"(Kickhaefer) is their No. 1 and he's not their No. 1 because he's a bad pitcher," Leo said. "He's very good. He pounded the zone with fastballs and curveballs and kept us off balance."
Hays executed well offensively in the early innings to get two runs off Kickhaefer. Dawson Harman reached on a two-out infield single in the second and then slid home safely after a single from Trae McCrae.
In the third, Hunter Brown led off with a single and Willie Sennett bunted for a hit to put two on with no outs. Palmer Hutchison moved the runners with a sacrifice bunt and Trey Riggs tied the game with a sac fly. The inning ended on a line out by Cody Peterson to center.
"We manufactured and were right in that ballgame," Leo said. "As a matter of fact, (Cody) Petersen barrels a ball with first and second and two outs. That ball's almost in the gap. That would have gave us the lead and maybe that swings a little momentum on our side.
"Against a guy like (Kickhaefer), you've got to get a leadoff guy on base and you got to try to make something happen. We weren't able to do that, so you tip your hat to him."
Murphy went five-plus innings, allowing five runs on nine hits with two walks and four strikeouts.
"You look up on the scoreboard and you see five runs off of him, (but) he didn't pitch that bad," Leo said. "He wasn't as dominating as their guy, but if we make some plays, he would have kept us in the ballgame."
Salina Central (12-3) will look to wrap up the tournament with a 4-0 mark when the Mustangs take on Great Bend at 12:30 on Saturday.
Hays will close out the tournament at 2:15 against Goddard-Eisenhower.
"What can we fix after a game like that? We can fix our defense," Leo said. "It's a matter of being prepared a little better before the pitch is thrown. We'll get better at it.
"We've got five games to fix it. I still believe in this ball club. It's a good a ball club. It was a good team that we played tonight and you tip your hat to them."