Limiting the damage in tight situations on the mound, the Hays Larks held off the Colorado Cyclones 7-6 on Monday night at Larks Park to start a big week on a strong note.
The Larks, now 25-6, never trailed in the non-league game but had to work out of some trouble in the late innings.
Hays took a three-run lead into the ninth, but Colorado made things interesting when Gavin Gifford belted one deep to left field that bounced off Clayton Rasbeary's glove to score two runs.
The Cyclones then put the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second before reliever Shane Browning came up with a strikeout to help the Larks escape.
"They had us on the ropes, and when our guys had to make a pitch, they did," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "Hats off to them. That's a case of trusting your stuff.
"Shane's a veteran guy and trusted his stuff and got what we needed."
The second biggest pitch of the night was delivered by starter Carlos Tavera, who protected a 5-2 lead in the sixth by getting a strikeout looking to get out of a bases-loaded jam.
"His last pitch of the night was really big to strike that guy out," Leo said.
The Larks were also able to minimize the damage in the seventh after Sloan Baker surrendered two runs but got a groundout to leave a runner at third and keep the Larks in front 5-4.
The unsung hero of the night was Sam Slusser, a pitcher from Colorado School of Mines who played the entire game at catcher on Monday after the Larks were hit with injuries at that position.
"We won a ballgame with a pitcher behind the plate. You don't see that happen very often," Leo said. "He has caught in high school. He stepped up and said, 'Coach, I'll do it.' Easton Kirk is still on the mend and Cole Solomon is nursing a little labrum injury.
"We're trying to get through this week and be as strong as we can by the time Derby gets here (this weekend)."
The Larks, who bounced back after seeing their nine-game win streak snapped on Sunday at El Dorado, struck first on an RBI single from Michael Anastasia in the second before Colorado (22-4) evened it up with a solo home run by Tyler Neeley in the third. Hays regained the lead on Rasbeary's two-run homer to right in the fourth.
Colorado committed four errors in the fifth inning alone to spot the Larks two runs. Hays later added two key insurance runs in the seventh after Jacob Boston drove in Wyatt Divis with a single and John Rensel Jr. scored on a wild pitch.
Boston, Devin Hager and Matt Munoz each had two hits for the Larks, who out-hit the Cyclones 11-9.
Tavera (UT-Arlington) gave up two runs on five hits with two walks and eight strikeouts in six innings to earn the win.
"It was good," Leo said of Tavera's outing. "He's got a good breaking pitch and he still needs to be finding that pitch, but I thought his velocity and command of the zone was better tonight than it was last time."
The teams will meet again tonight at 7 p.m. as the Larks continue a seven-game homestand. Hays will play Dodge City on Wednesday night and then open a four-game series with Derby on Friday.
"They're a good team," Leo said of the Cyclones. "We don't want to empty the tank because we got big league games coming up. It's July and that league race is important in July. You want to be as fresh as you can."