Eagles set to host state
By CONOR NICHOLL
Last season, Hays Senior Legion baseball coach Brad Kelly discussed "setting a precedent hopefully" for an Eagle program that often reached the state tournament but had trouble winning a title. In 2012, Hays broke through, went 46-10, rolled to the team's first state crown since 1981 and played in a regional in New Orleans.
A year later, Hays returns just a few players from last summer's squad. The Eagles enter this week's Class AAA state tournament with a 24-17 record.
Yet Kelly believes the team "isn't too far off" from the 2012 team, especially at the top of the rotation. The win-loss record is a little skewed, too, with some fluky losses.
Kelly counted at least five contests Hays likely should have won this summer.
"This is what it's all about," Kelly said before a team workout Monday night. "It's all about winning this time of year. You just keep playing until they tell you that you can't play anymore. It's kind of that hidden elephant in the room. We are not going to really discuss it all that much, we are just going to go play, but everyday knows the ultimate goal is to win this tournament."
Hays plays in the last of four first-round games Wednesday at Larks Park against Leavenworth. Game time isn't set, but the Eagles are expected to start around 7 or 8 p.m.
"It's going to come down to pitching and defense," Kelly said. "If we can throw three or four runs up there on the board, I think if we are playing sound defensively, I think that we have got a good chance to win."
The eight-team, double-elimination tournament runs through Sunday. Hays hasn't played Leavenworth this summer, but played them in a doubleheader last year. Leavenworth defeated a strong Manhattan team twice in Zone.
"I think the field is about even, so I think we have a good opportunity," catcher Jake Sedbrook said.
In 2012, Hays' top three starters had earned-run averages of 1.47, 1.64 and 1.87. This summer, the Eagles' top three pitchers have ERAs of 1.66, 1.70 and 1.94. Right-hander Layne Downing (5-2, 1.70 ERA), the team leader in multiple categories, including starts (eight) and innings pitched (57.2) will pitch Game 1.
Like most of the staff, Downing is a pitch-to-contact arm. He has a a 43/18 strikeout to walk rate. Right-hander Clayton Basgall is the team's lone pitcher who has averaged more than a strikeout per inning pitched.
"He does a good job," Kelly said. "It doesn't seem like a lot of guys usually square him up all that well. He gets a lot of ground balls or lazy flyball outs, and he is efficient. That is kind of why we like him. He is not going to walk a whole lot of guys even though he is not going to strike out a ton of guys."
Downing has thrown a no-hitter in the spring and summer, but has pitched more consistently for the Eagles than Hays High School.
"The high school season, I had a few rough starts," Downing said. "I thought I was more of a reliever, and then in the summer, I think I am just a lot more relaxed and I am not really thinking on the mound, just go up there and throw. I feel like my outings have been a lot better.
"I think I just don't have as much on my shoulders," he added. "More games to play. I don't have to worry about school and stuff. It's a lot off."
Basgall (3-0, 1.66) is likely to throw Game 2 and left-hander Kade Parker (4-2, 1.94) will throw Game 3.
Because of Downing's durability, he could come back and pitch another contest later in the tournament. Basgall has felt some soreness/tightness.
"Clayton has kind of battled a little arm issues throughout the summer, so I know he will able to go one game for sure," Kelly said. "After that, I am not really sure whether we are going to be able to get much out of him."
Hayden Hutchison leads in virtually every statistical category with a .486 average, .574 on-base percentage, .798 slugging percentage, 16 doubles, six homers and 49 RBIs. After he set multiple single-season and career records for HHS in the spring, Hutchison could do the same this summer.
He currently stands second in single-season batting average, trailing only Jeff Bieker's .516 in 2000. He is one off the top-10 list for homers and doubles and four back in RBIs. Hays Legion doesn't track records for on-base or slugging percentage. Kelly has seen high school players who have been drafted and ranks Hutchison, a Neosho (Kan.) Community College signee, has one of the top players.
"Offensively, he can swing it with the best guys that I have really seen," Kelly said. "Just his plate approach - he just looks so comfortable when he is in the batter's box. He doesn't let anything get rattled. Even if he gets down 0-2, he doesn't let it bother him.
"He is just a guy who competes to the utmost at everything that he does," Kelly added. "Overall, I have seen guys that are faster. I have seen guys that have more arm strength, that can throw a little bit harder. Just an all-around competitor and an all-around hitter, he is definitely one of the best that I have been around."
Last season, the Eagles' top six batters hit between .348 and .375. No regular batted under .272.
As a team, Hays carried a .335/435/476 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) line. This summer, Hays is batting .315/419/421.
"I don't think we are too far off from where we were last year," Kelly said. "Obviously, we don't have the depth offensively 1-9, but I think our pitching is just as good. As long as we can get some runs and play solid, I think we are going to be OK. It's good to have expectations for your program. The state tournament is kind of what you shoot for every year, and hopefully that's kind of where we are at right now."