Spring training and opening night always arrive simultaneously for the Hays Larks.
The Larks open their season with four non-league games this weekend, giving manager Frank Leo his first chance to form his early impressions of his team.
“We call this time our spring training,” said Leo, who is entering his 36th season as Larks manager. “We haven’t had very much time to practice. We’ll have one short practice (Thursday) afternoon because we’ll still have guys traveling in and getting here. After that, will kind of use the weekend to learn about our guys.”
The Larks will begin against the Denver Cougars at 7 p.m. on Friday at Larks Park. They will play a 6 p.m. doubleheader vs. the Colorado Sox on Saturday before closing out the weekend against the Sox at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Leo will use several different pitchers each game.
“We have a couple arms that we know about that threw a lot of innings,” Leo said. “They’ll be some guys that will start next week when we start league play that we won't use much. We’ll give them an option, do you want to throw bullpen, do you want one inning?
“We need to know who we can trust, particularly guys coming out of the bullpen. We’re not going to accomplish all of that this weekend, but at least we’ll get a feel for it.”
The Larks return three players — pitcher Walter Pennington (Colorado School of Mines), pitcher Ryan Kotulek (Cisco Junior College) and Clayton Rasbeary (Grayson Community College) — off last year’s team that went 34-17 and reached the National Baseball Congress World Series semifinals. Leo will look for those three to show the ropes to the rest of the team.
“We try to get three to five guys back,” Leo said. “Sometimes we get guys coming back for a third year. It’s real important for those guys to say, ‘Hey, this program has a great winning tradition to people who love baseball and we’ve got to give them some good baseball.’ That’s what I tell the guys, but it means a whole lot more when it comes from your peers, telling you ‘Hey, guys we need to get after it.’
“You know, we don’t have much time to make guys get on the same page and become a cohesive unit. It’s got to happen quick.”
Leo said versatility and speed could be a strength of his lineup.
“When you carry 13, 14 position players, with three of them of being catchers, versatility comes in to play big,” he said. “I feel with the versatility we got, if we give a guy a day off or he has to sit out a couple games because of minor injury, we’re not going to miss a beat.
“I think it’s going to a be a club that runs pretty well and can create a little small ball."
Next week, the Larks will open Jayhawk League play at Great Bend on Tuesday then will return home against Great Bend Thursday. Tyler Blomster, a 6-foot-7 right hander from the Colorado School of Mines, is expected to start on Tuesday while left hander Pennington will draw the start on Thursday.
Leo said he expects the Larks to reach full strength by the time they take on El Dorado at home next Friday.
“I think the talent’s going to be there,” Leo said. “We just have to play on the same page and become Larks in the summertime.”