WICHITA — In the eighth inning of Friday’s quarterfinal game of the National Baseball Congress World Series at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, the Hays Larks were clinging to a two-run lead. Reliever Chad Smith had just walked a pair of San Diego Waves, and the tying run was at first base.
That’s the kind of situation Hays Larks reliever Tyler Starks, a small-statured left-hander from Stephen F. Austin, lives for.
And again, Starks delivered. Wrapping up the second straight night where a Larks starter pitched seven solid innings, Starks grabbed his second straight save — his ninth of the season — and the Larks captured a 4-2 victory to move into the semifinals for the second straight year. Hays now will take on the Everett (Wash.) Merchants at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“Knowing that was my role coming here, you kind of expect those situations,” said Starks, whose 1.2-inning save earned him his ninth this summer. “You’re the one that’s happy to get us through that. I just pride myself on coming through in those situations.”
Starks recorded the two outs in the eighth, then worked around a double in the ninth, wrapping up a seven-inning start for Dylan Schneider (5-0), who settled in to a solid performance after two early Larks errors led to the Waves’ runs in the first and second. Schneider allowed both unearned runs and struck out five through seven, while Starks struck out four of the seven batters he faced. He walked one.
“I got to come in and avoid hard contact,” Starks said. “Have to do what I can with my best stuff. Attack them, get out of that and keep the lead.”
It was the second straight outing and the third of the tournament where the Larks’ starter went deep.
“Outstanding again,” Larks manager Frank Leo said of Larks’ starter Schneider. “Our pitchers keep passing the baton. I think it’s getting contagious, like hitting gets contagious.
“Each guy wants to do just as good as the guy did before him.”
The only thing that concerned Leo, aside from a pair of errors on some tough plays early in the game, is the fact his club left nine runners on base.
“Had a chance to make that a little more comfortable and didn’t do it.”
The Larks’ biggest inning was the third. Trailing 2-1 after the second and a pair of errors, the Larks found a spark when Jonathan Soberanes led off the inning with a double. Jace Selsor followed with a single. With no outs, Colin Simpson came through. He doubled, driving in a pair of runs to give the Larks a lead they never gave back.
“He had a good at-bat,” Leo said of Simpson, who came through in a similar situation the night before with the win against Seattle that got Hays into the bracket. “He’s the guy you want up there in those situations. No matter what’s happening, when the game is on the line and we have guys on base, he’s the guy we want at the plate.”
Later in the inning, Mikey Gangwish tacked on what turned into the game’s final run with a single to score Simpson.
The pitching did the rest. Schneider allowed two baserunners in the fourth, but none the rest of his seven-inning start.
“We saw flashes of (great starting pitching) during the season,” Starks said. “When you want guys to turn it on is now, and that’s what they’ve done. They’re playing impressive. Getting more than what we need and more than what we expect. It helps out the pen and really helped us move forward in this tournament.”
The Larks now face an Everett team that knocked out defending champion and perennial power Santa Barbara (Calif.). The Merchants won 6-3 in the first game Friday. Saturday’s game was moved from 9:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. due to potential weather.
“I’m proud of this ball club,” Leo said, pointing out the grind toward the end of the Jayhawk League season where Hays played several doubleheaders in the closing days. “They grinded it out. We tried to maintain a flow and not get them worn out.
“We got down here and why not? You work hard to get here, just keep grinding one game at a time and see how far you can go. They’re giving it their best, and that’s what makes me feel good about them.”
Alex Lopez is scheduled to make the start Saturday for Hays. Lopez, in his start Sunday, went eight innings in a 6-0 shutout against San Antonio. A win Saturday would put Hays in Sunday’s title game against either the Kansas Stars, a team made up of former Major Leaguers or the Cheney Diamond Dawgs, the team that beat the Larks in pool play.