Tigers sweep Northwest Missouri
By CONOR NICHOLL
Fort Hays State University has dealt with constant scheduling changes due to multiple snowstorms the last few weeks.
Even Wednesday's doubleheader against Northwest Missouri State University was switched from Tuesday. Larks Park still had some sogginess, especially along the fence from center field to right center, an area that was almost unplayable.
Prior to Wednesday, the Tigers had played just four games since Feb. 24.
"We kind of felt like a football team the last three or four weeks," coach Steve Johnson said. "Just one day a week."
Against Northwest Missouri, though, the Tigers put together a solid day with 3-0 and 11-3 victories. The wins were FHSU's first games at Larks Park since Feb. 19.
"It was nice to get back home and, I thought, play a really good day of baseball," Johnson said.
In Game 1, senior right-hander Jesse Hart worked a complete game shutout, while in the second game, FHSU tallied four runs in the fifth and five in the sixth.
In addition, the infield turned five double plays, including four in Game 2. Plus, Johnson's two sons came on the public address announcer and sang, "Happy Birthday" for their dad's birthday.
"We had the week off or whatever with all that snow, but it's been a little different this year having to travel just to play one day and travel back right away," senior Ryan Busboom said, "Don't know when you are playing again, so just got to stay on top of it and always be ready."
In addition, the Tigers recently added a new sign to the third-base dugout at Larks Park. Assistant coach Andy Lewton, a former Tiger starting pitcher, put up a sign that reads "The Fort Hays State University winning tradition will not be entrusted to the timid or the weak."
FHSU has battled through multiple obstacles this season, including the weather and early series against conference powers University of Central Missouri and Emporia State University.
"I have been proud of them," Johnson said. "We have been on the road a ton. Everybody that we have faced so far has been someone predicted to be in the top half of the conference."
However, the Tigers now have won three in a row and stand at 10-7 overall, 7-6 MIAA entering a road series at Lindenwood (Mo.) University this weekend.
Northwest Missouri dropped to 4-14, 4-11 MIAA.
"I like that," Busboom said of the sign. "We are way more of a hard-nosed team this year, which is going to bring us a lot more success than last year. Last year, we were more laid back, and this year, we get after it in the weight room more and harder practices and stuff like that. It's going really good so far."
Hart, the 6-foot-7 Hays High School product, improved to 3-0 and lowered his earned run-average to 2.73. He allowed seven hits, struck out two and walked none. It marked the first shutout by a Tiger starter since Lewton threw eight shutout innings in a 3-0 win against Arkansas-Fort Smith on Feb. 26, 2011.
The last time it occurred with a FHSU pitcher in a MIAA game was when Chase Schippers threw seven scoreless innings on May 2, 2010, at Truman State (Mo.) University.
"You can just tell in his mound presence, it's a lot better than what it was even last year down the stretch and a huge lift for us today," Johnson said. "We are searching to fill that midweek type role, and he has done a nice job of coming out of the pen and as a starter this year, so we are excited to see that."
Last season, Hart went 4-2 with a 5.63 earned-run average in 12 games. He had 25 walks in 38.1 innings, but allowed opponents to a .295 batting average, one of the lowest marks on the team. This year, Hart had an opponents' batting average of just .231 entering Wednesday. He has 11 walks in 26 innings this year.
"We've had some issues with him getting down in some counts and stuff," Johnson said. "He threw really well in his last outing, but he wasn't getting ahead of left-handers. It was like he lost focus and let it tail off the plate, and I thought he did a great job of that tonight. Got down on a few of them and came back."
Johnson has noticed Hart has always thrown a "heavy ball," which helps cause the lower opponents' batting average.
"For some reason, there is just not a lot of good swings against him," Johnson said.
Hart recorded 14 ground ball outs, including a double play. Junior center fielder Clayton Garland hit a home run to help the offense.
"It's tough facing a guy like Hart," Busboom said. "He is has gotten a different arm slot than anybody, 6-7, from a three-quarter arm slot and it's tough to hit off of him. It's hard to see the ball and he is starting to locate really well, too, right now and that's what's helping out a lot, and helping out the team a lot. He is keeping the players all in their toes because he throws it in there every time."
In the second contest, Busboom homered and the Tigers turned four double plays, all after the third inning. Nathan Zimmerman moved to 3-0 with 3.1 relief innings.
"Infield has been playing great this year and it's pretty fun seeing some of the plays that Chris and Kelton can make over there," Busboom said.