Larks win rain-shortened game, fill time
By NICK McQUEEN
When the National Baseball Congress World Series announced a change in the format for this year's season finale, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo knew it would be a challenge for any team good enough to qualify automatically for Championship Week.
While Hays won its second straight Jayhawk League title this week and eighth overall, the Larks and Leo now are left with a week-plus to fill before they begin play at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
It seemed Thursday as if even Mother Nature wanted to give Hays some downtime.
Rain shortened Hays' 4-0 win against the Dodge City A's at Larks Park to five innings in an anti-climactic ending to what Leo called a tense final run to the Jayhawk League title.
Chandler Hawkins (5-2), the likely starter for Hays' first game either Aug. 2 or 3, pitched all five innings Thursday. He gave up a single in the first, but retired the order the rest of the way. He struck out seven with no walks.
"We got done what we needed to do," Leo said. "The guys got some reps in. Hawkins was the big key.
"We needed to get him at least five innings," Leo added. "He'll go in the (NBC opener), and that's nine days away."
Hawkins got help from the Larks' offense in the third inning. Desmond Roberts, who had been out of town for a wedding, returned and led off the third with a single. Spencer Neve followed suit, then Jake Placzek recorded a two-RBI double to put Hays (31-11 overall, 23-10 Jayhawk) on the board. Placzek scored on an error to put Hays up 3-0 after three. Then, in the fourth, Zair Koeiman hit a towering solo home run to left to set the final margin. Dodge City ended its season at 15-26, 8-26 in league play. The Larks swept the eight-game season series.
Hawkins, who lowered his earned-run average to 2.43 and has a team-high 63 strikeouts, could be a frontrunner for Jayhawk League Pitcher of the Year.
"His last several outings, he's pitching with a lot of confidence in every one of his pitches," Leo said. "He's going to be our go-to guy. We'll run him out there in Game 1, and hopefully hang around in that thing long enough to get something started."
Hays clinched the title with a win at Dodge City on Wednesday, coupled with a loss by the second-place Wellington Heat. That came after Hays had a stranglehold on the league the entire season only to have to fight to the finish in a summer where injuries were more abundant than most years.
"Recruiting never stopped," said Leo. "We had to go big-time recruiting May 1 when we lost six or seven guys, but the guys just kept battling.
"They believed in the Larks' history, and the history and pride of the Larks, and they wanted the title," he added. "And, they fought for it."
The reward for the title is a berth in the final 16 at the new NBC, but Leo had to scramble and worry about how to keep his club focused in the off time. The Larks are scheduled to head to Colorado on Saturday to take on the Colorado Sox, another Championship Week qualifier. The Larks will play two games with the Sox, then return for a Tuesday game with alumni.
"When I saw that new format, this was the biggest fear," Leo said. "We're not going to play not to win the Jayhawk League.
"That gives you nine days off," Leo added. "It's going to be a challnege for every coach in this position. How do you keep your guys sharp, keep them focused?"
The Larks also will use the time to get healthy and possibly make some roster moves. First baseman Cody Daily is done for the season with a meniscus tear. Third-year Lark MacKenzie Handel also will leave the team at the conclusion of the regular season due to personal reasons.
Hays already added Graylon Brown as a right-handed pitcher. Brown was the closer this season for the Derby Twins.