Hays Larks catcher Garrett McKinzie’s only at-bat of Wednesday night’s game against Dodge City came at arguably the most important moment of the Larks’ biggest game of the season.
The Larks entered the game against the A’s needing one more win to secure a National Baseball Congress World Series berth.
McKinzie, a second-year Lark, stepped in with the bases loaded and two down in the bottom of the eighth with Dodge City owning a 5-4 advantage.
The energy at Larks Park built steadily following Austin O’Brien’s second homer of the game, bringing the Larks within one run.
Mike Mioduszewski then grounded out for the Larks’ second out, but Nate Olinger earned a five-pitch walk to bring some life back to the park. The crowd picked it up another notch after a Devlin Granberg single. By the time McKinzie stepped in following Austin Bell’s walk, the energy was palpable.
“I was pretty overwhelmed on deck,” McKinzie said. “You do all you can to calm yourself down and prepare.”
He turned to prayer, asking a higher power for the strength to stand up to the situation.
“God, help me calm down a little bit here and stay within the moment,” the catcher said, summarizing his divine request.
It worked, as McKinzie took a 2-1 pitch just beyond the glove of Dodge City shortstop Garrett Giovannelli, allowing pinch runner Ty Redington and Granberg to score and put the Larks ahead by the winning score of 6-5.
“Big Mac, Garrett McKinzie, battled,” Larks manager Frank Leo said. “He did something tonight that we’ve been talking about doing with men in scoring position… Don’t get too big, sit back, let the ball come to you and stay in the middle of the field. We barreled a lot of balls. That one wasn’t barreled, but it was just hit in the right place.”
The Larks then turned to closer Chad Smith for the ninth. After the New Mexico product allowed a leadoff single and hit the second batter of the inning, Leo made a rare mound visit to talk defense.
“We just went out and talked about situations, tried to slow the game down,” Leo said. “(I) told Schmitty (Smith) he’s the guy we want out here in this situation and just keep attacking.”
Smith retired the next two A’s before hitting his second batter of the inning to load the bases.
Dodge City third baseman Mason Pierzchalski stepped in and worked a 2-0 count to open the at-bat. Smith battled back, getting Pierzchalski to foul off the next two pitches. As the umpire returned the ball to Smith, the home crowd took to its feet, sensing what came next.
The Larks’ closer induced a grounder to Jax Biggers at second, and after Biggers won a footrace to the bag, the Larks (20-3, 16-3) marked the 6-5 win with a celebratory mosh pit around Smith.
“We got the hits when we needed them tonight, and we made some pitches when we needed them,” Leo said. “A great win. That’s a good ball club.”
Dodge City wasted no time scoring the game’s first run in the top of the first. Kansas Jayhawk Blake Shinkle took Hays starter Austin Isenhart’s first pitch for a single. He then stole second and advanced on a throwing error by the Larks’ starting catcher, Mikey Gangwish. Ian Dawkins then brought the Dodge City right fielder in on a groundout.
Hays answered in the bottom half, as Josh Minjarez, the Larks’ two-hole hitter, singled up the middle and also stole second. Mike Mioduszewski later ripped a 3-2 pitch to left, allowing Minjarez to score.
The Larks had two runners in scoring position in the third, as Andy Shadid and Biggers opened the frame with walks. They executed a one-out double steal on the first pitch to O’Brien, but A’s starter Justin Clark struck out O’Brien and Olinger to escape the jam.
“You gotta tip your hat to him, but we did chase some pitches,” Leo said of the early innings. “We probably should have sat back more because his bread and butter was the off-speed, a breaking pitch.”
Dodge City took advantage after Chase Calabuig opened the fourth inning with a double and Alex Aguiar followed with a single. Calabuig scored on a productive fielder’s choice before Brett Minnick dropped a bloop single in shallow right to score Aguiar, making it 3-1.
After being fooled by Clark’s breaking ball earlier in the game, O’Brien got his revenge on a 1-1 offering in the fifth that he blasted over the wall in left-center for his first homer of the night, a two-run shot. After admiring the ball’s trajectory for the moment, the Sooner circled the bases and touched home to tie the game at three.
“I definitely wasn’t trying to hit home runs,” O’Brien said. “I was just trying to stay short, put a good swing on the ball. I was fortunate to help my team win tonight.”
Whether he was trying to or not, the Oklahoma Sooner put the Larks in position to win.
“He carried us tonight, put us on his shoulders” Leo added.
The A’s quickly regained the lead. Aguiar ripped a double over a leaping Granberg at third. He came around to score on a single that slowly rolled back up the middle off Brian Parreira’s bat.
Dodge City took its one-run lead to the seventh when the Larks brought on Ty Schwanner in relief of Isenhart. Schwanner walked the first batter he faced before a hit-and-run single rolled behind Minjarez, who went to cover second on the play. Schwanner was replaced by Shane Browning after a second walk loaded the bases with zero outs.
Aguiar brought in Dodge City’s fifth run on a groundout to short. Browning rebounded with a strikeout and a fly out to limit the Dodge City’s opportunity for a big inning.
“I thought Shane Browning did an excellent job of minimizing the inning he came on,” Leo said.
O’Brien’s second homer of the game, a solo shot to the opposite field in right-center, brought the Larks back within a run to start the rally in the eighth. The Larks three-hole hitter also had a walk-off homer against El Dorado in his first game with the team. He led the Larks with two hits and three RBI in their biggest game to date.
While Isenhart went six innings, allowing four runs on seven hits, Browning picked up the win with two perfect frames in the seventh and eighth. Smith then recorded his sixth save of the season in the ninth.
While the Larks can play pressure-free baseball for the next month, Leo said that he doesn’t want the team to lose any momentum throughout the remainder of the regular season.
“We’re excited,” Leo said. “The guys earned this. We challenged them Day 1 back in (early) June that we want to win the month of June. They won it. They deserve it.”
Considering the way the Larks accomplished that goal, it might be a bit before relaxation sets in.
“We’re going to go to the NBC now,” McKinzie said. “We’re pretty pumped about that.”
Hays 6, Dodge City 5
Dodge City 100 201 100 — 5 9 0
Hays 100 020 03x — 6 7 1
Isenhart, Schwanner (7), Browning (7), Smith (9). and Gangwish, McKinzie. Clark, Ramirez (6), Mahoney (8) and Padilla. W — Browning. L — Mahoney. S — Smith. 2B — Calabuig, Aguiar (Dodge City). HR — O’Brien 2 (Hays).