Eagles cruise in first round

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Hays Senior Legion baseball team had several difficulties in its first-round game in the Class AAA state tournament Wednesday night at Larks Park. Starting pitcher Layne Downing had trouble gripping the ball because of moist conditions, labored through some long innings and threw 122 pitches in 7.1 innings.

Hays had two runners -- veterans Dan Bittel and Clayton Basgall -- picked off second base. The Eagles had trouble moving runners over on bunts and scoring runners. Hays had miscues on two double-play opportunities.

After the first inning, coach Brad Kelly said Hays "kind of slept walked" through the game. Still, the Eagles scored five first-inning runs, took advantage of some Leavenworth miscues, and still rolled to a 12-2 victory that was called after eight innings because of the mercy rule.

"Pretty good start," Downing said. "Probably could have had a little more energy, but a win is a win."

Hays moves on to play Finney County (28-8) in the championship semifinals tonight starting at approximately 7:30 p.m. Left-hander Kade Parker is the probable starter for the Eagles. Lyle Befort, a former Fort Hays State University standout pitcher, Thomas More Prep-Marian coach and Hays Legion coach from 2003-07, has led the Blues to their best season in many years. Hays, the defending state champion, moved to 25-17.

"It just seemed like we were never in a groove," Kelly said. "It seemed like we couldn't get any type of rally going after that first inning. It's always good to get a win, especially the first game of the state tournament. But we have got to be sharper. We have got to be better."

Leavenworth, unable to set its pitching rotation after a big comeback in Zone play several days ago, had to start its fourth-best pitcher and dropped to 44-10. In Zone, Leavenworth lost the first championship game 11-0 to Manhattan and then rallied for two victories. The first win finished around 1 a.m.

"We had a rough week last week," Leavenworth coach Zak Knapp said. "Four games in three days. Nine-inning games kill you. We are a little tired on the pitching side. It's a long drive out here to western Loveland, Kansas. It's tough on them the first day."

Hays collected five runs on five hits and two Diamond Jaxx errors in the first inning against starter James Gladieux. Leavenworth finished with four errors, five walks allowed and three hit batters. The Diamond Jaxx also made an out in the seventh inning when they batted out of order.

"We weren't prepared," Knapp said. "Mentally, we were out of it. Too many errors. ...The ace pitched three days ago, and I don't do that with the boys. They have to have four (days' rest). They are high school kids. They are all 15,16, 17 years old. I am not going to pitch them on two or three days' rest. They have got 10 more years of playing baseball."

In the first inning, Basgall started the game with a first-pitch line drive single past shortstop. Bittel laid down a perfect bunt single, and Hayden Hutchison followed with a ground ball run-scoring single through the right side. After a force play and an error, John Griffith singled off Gladieux's glove. Parker delivered an RBI single, Jake Sedbrook walked and Kyler Niernberger drove in a run with a squeeze bunt.

This season, Hays has outscored opponents 64-27 in the first inning, easily the most runs and biggest margin for any inning. After that, the Eagles had one run in the third, three in the fifth and three in the eighth, but were never really comfortable. Kelly and assistant coach Andy Lewton talked in the dugout during the game.

"It feels like we are struggling," Kelly told Lewton. "Yeah, we were up 8-0 or 9-1, but it felt like we just weren't crisp. There was no flow to the game whatsoever. It doesn't really matter, because this time of the year, it's all about finding a way to win."

Downing, 6-2 with a 1.72 earned-run average, didn't allow a hit until the third inning. He struck out seven against four walks and allowed two runs on six hits. Later in the game, Downing had more trouble gripping the ball and said his fastball "got away a couple of times."

"That little rosin bag I don't think was really big enough to do a good job," he said.

Downing had a strong cut fastball that helped him work around jams in the third, fourth and fifth innings.

"It was hard to keep my hands dry, so that's something that you've just got to battle through," he said. "Those walks, I knew I would find the zone eventually, and I knew defense behind me was going to play solid."