Larks cap league turnaround with win
By NICK McQUEEN
In 30-plus seasons of managing the Hays Larks, Frank Leo has seen just about every scenario play itself out -- especially in the last 15 years.
At times, the Larks have played so well in the first five weeks of the summer, the league seemed all but decided by the Fourth of July. Other years, an up-and-down campaign came down to the wire -- like in 2004 when Hays played a triple header with a share of the league crown on the line in the season's final weekend, only to finish second by a half game.
This summer, though, seemed a rare occurrence for Hays. The way his team was playing the final two weeks of June and the first week of July, Leo thought things were heading downhill.
"Just excited about how these guys were able to turn it around," Leo said. "Things looked pretty bleak back in June when maybe even a trip to the (NBC) World Series was doubtful."
Hays, though, capped its great turnaround in league play with a 10-5 victory against the Dodge City A's on Thursday at Larks Park.
"They fought through injuries," Leo said. "We still have some guys banged up a little bit, but we're all getting healthy."
The Larks, winners of eight straight, capped their Jayhawk League second-place finish at 21-13 (28-13 overall). It's the 13th time in the last 14 seasons Hays has finished runner-up or won the league crown. The only time outside of the top two was a third-place finish in 2010 when the Larks did not play in the series finale in Wichita for only the second time under Leo.
"This club is in very good position right now," Leo said. "I like the attitude, the temperament and how they're playing the game.
"We're getting in a pretty good groove. We've got one more night and have to stay focused, and we'll play it just like a World Series ball game tomorrow night."
Hays fell down 3-0 after one inning in Thursday's league finale, but battled back with three runs of its own in the second. Once the Larks took the lead in the fourth on a Brooks Balisterri RBI double in the fourth, they never gave it back.
Dodge City (18-24, 10-24) finished its summer at the bottom of the Jayhawk League, one of only two league teams -- along with Liberal -- to not earn a spot in the upcoming NBC World Series at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Derek Birginske (2-0) picked up the win in four innings Thursday. He gave up three Dodge City runs (all earned) on five hits with no strikeouts and two walks. Hays planned to use several pitchers who needed some time in preparation for the tourney. Craig Larkin, Nick Goza, Ian Bentley and Ethan Landon all saw time Thursday.
Nate Olinger finished 3 for 4 and drove in three runs to fuel the Larks' offense, along with newcomer Thomas Clay, who was 2 for 3, scored twice and recorded an RBI triple in the Larks' three-run second that tied the game.
Balisterri, who now has five hits in his first three games with the Larks, was 2 for 4, driving in the go-ahead run. He, Tyler Leffler, Aaron Cornell, Joe Hallock, Evan Gruener and Matt Leuty all had doubles. "I really like the way this club has stuck together through the tough times," Leo said, "and they are really playing good baseball right now."
Hays closes the regular season today at 7 p.m. in non-league action against the Junction City Brigade. The Larks had hoped to add games next week to avoid downtime before the NBC, but Leo wasn't sure if they would get any scheduled or not. The Larks do not begin play until Championship Week (final 16) at the NBC either Aug. 1 or 2. The tournament's first week of action begins today in Wichita. The winner of the first field of 16 advances to Championship Week.
"We've got to maintain that focus because we don't know if we're going to get another chance next week to do that," Leo said.