WICHITA — The Seattle Studs were the Hays Larks’ opponent Thursday with the loser seeing its season end at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Luckily for Hays manager Frank Leo, he had a stud of his own on the mound.
Walt Pennington got the start and delivered in a big way, picking up the win in a 3-1 game. Pennington scattered five hits over eight one-run innings.
It was a big spot for the southpaw who wrapped up his freshman year at Colorado School of Mines this spring.
“That’s a young kid that responded very well,” Leo said.
“The kid was outstanding today.”
The starter admitted to battling not only a veteran Studs squad but some nerves to boot in his biggest start of the summer.
“I knew this team was very good of course, watching them through the tournament and hearing about them,” Pennington said. “Of course I was nervous, but I had my teammates back me up. I knew I could trust my stuff, trust in them and just do my thing.”
After working around a double to the first batter he faced, Pennington got to work with a lead after two scoreless innings.
Singles from Jacob Boston and Mikey Gangwish and a walk by Jace Selsor loaded the bases for Trey Ochoa, the Larks’ nine-hole hitter. Ochoa flared a liner to right that was deep enough for Boston to tag and score from third. Leadoff man Ke’one Givens made it 2-0, as he legged out a fielder’s choice to second to prevent what could’ve been an inning-ending double play.
The Studs got one back in the third after a pair of singles bookended a sacrifice bunt. Pennington was at his best from that point forward, keeping the Studs off the board and allowing just one hit the rest of the way. It helped working with a collegiate teammate behind the plate in Larks’ catcher Mikey Gangwish.
“We’ve been building this relationship through my freshman year and all this summer,” Pennington said. “It all clicked today.”
The Larks had opportunities to add insurance runs in both the fourth and fifth, putting runners in scoring position with less than one out but failed to pad the lead both times.
“We’ve gotta make sure we don’t get too big, and I thought we did instead of just trying to make some contact there,” Leo said. “We left a lot of runners on base in key situations.”
That changed behind a two-out rally in the sixth. After a single from Ochoa and walks from Givens and Johnathan Soberanes extended the inning, Colin Simpson stepped in with the bases loaded. The Hays cleanup batter smacked a single through the right side of the infield, scoring Ochoa. Givens was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.
Pennington returned to the mound for the seventh with a 3-1 advantage, having not allowed a hit since the run-scoring single in the third.
The Larks had a chance to add to the lead in the bottom half, putting two men on to open the inning, but Gangwish couldn’t get a bunt down on three attempts for the first out. The Larks ended up leaving two men aboard.
Pennington allowed his fifth and final hit in the eighth and received a mound from Larks pitching coach Keith Harper. Gangwish and the rest of the Hays infielders talked Harper into leaving Pennington in for one last out.
The Larks starter rewarded the decision with his sixth strikeout of the game on a 3-2 pitch.
After Hays stranded its 12th and 13th runners in the bottom half, Tyler Starks came on for the save. It wasn’t without some drama, however.
The Studs’ leadoff man singled before a flyout to Trevor Boone in center. Boone moved over from right after Givens exited with a tweaked groin. Boone would be needed again on the next play on a ball hit well to the gap in right.
“They barreled some balls up,” Leo said. “Boone went and made a great play in right-center. That could’ve been huge if it goes down.”
A two-out single followed, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. With his win in jeopardy, Pennington still had faith in the Larks’ closer.
“He’s always been great for us,” Pennington said. “I knew I could trust him in any situation.”
Starks got the next batter to pop a bull up to Ochoa behind second base.
Pennington said he relied on his changeup to picked up the win and credited fellow Larks starter Alex Lopez for some help. It came in handy in a big spot Thursday.
“It was outstanding. A lefty has got to have a good changeup against righties, particularly that kind of ballclub,” Leo said.
“They’re going to sit on fastballs if they know it’s coming. I thought him and Mikey teamed up for a tremendous game.”
While the Larks owned a 9-7 advantage in hits, Boston was the only Hays player with a multi-hit game.
The Larks are set to face the San Diego Waves at 3:30 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal game. The Larks will use an approach they planned to use Thursday thanks to Pennington’s extended outing.
“Coming into today, it was all hands on deck. We were going to throw everybody as much as we had to,” Leo said.
“Not only was the win great for Pennington and what he did, but taking us deep into that game has saved some arms for us now.”