By NICK McQUEEN
In the Jayhawk League, teams go through ups and downs.
The Hays Larks, winners of nine straight as of Friday night, have not experienced too much of the latter -- at least in terms of wins and losses.
The Larks have had to overcome several injuries, players leaving the team, and even playing four games with a depleted staff of catchers.
Still, Hays got another solid pitching outing Friday, got a new catcher in to get some time and won its ninth straight game, 9-0, against Derby at Larks Park.
The game was the first of three with the Twins. The two teams were scheduled to play Saturday night and will wrap up the series with a 7 p.m. game today.
Hays (27-10 overall, 21-10 Jayhawk League) maintained its 2.5 game lead on Dodge City in the league race. As of Friday, Dodge has four games remaining, while Hays has three, including the season finale Wednesday at home against the A's.
The nine-game winning streak is the longest since Hays won 13 straight in 2003. In 2007, Hays started the season with nine straight wins. The Larks also won nine straight in 2009.
Derby dropped to 15-20 overall and 14-16 in league play with the loss.
"The thing that really excited me about this ball club is when they've had to step up, they've done it," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "We've faced some adversity, and we keep having our guys step up, and that's what has kind of made our ball club go."
Making just his second start since a finger injury kept him out of the rotation for more than two weeks, Justin Ziegler was solid Friday night.
The right-hander from Bradley, a Lenexa native, pitched eight innings, surrendering three hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
It was the Larks' fourth shutout of the summer, and the sixth in the last seven games a starter has pitched at least six innings.
That run started with a complete-game shutout by Joey Begel against Dodge City on July 12. Since then, Begel also has pitched eight innings in a 2-1 road win against Liberal on Wednesday.
"The guys are feeding off each other," Leo said. "Pitching is contagious, and the guys knew they had to step up."
The win moves Ziegler to 5-1 on the summer with a 2.92 earned-run average in eight starts.
"He's not quite back to 100 percent, but pretty darn close," Leo said. "He was a lot more effective this outing than his last one (after the injury), but that one wasn't bad either."
Since returning, Ziegler is 2-0 in 13.2 innings, allowing five earned runs on nine hits with 13 strikeouts.
"He just pounds the zone, pitches both sides of the plate," Leo said. "He had a lot of groundball outs (Friday).
"He's just a guy who knows how to pitch," Leo added.
Meanwhile, the Hays offense has continued to pour it on.
The Larks are averaging 7.1 runs per contest, fueled by the hot hitting of Austin Darby and Zair Koeiman. Brett Lang, who has caught in all or part of the last five games, also has hit well, batting .333 for the season.
Darby (.397) finished 2 for 4 Friday with two RBIs, and Koeiman (.351) was 2 for 3 with three RBIs and two runs scored.
Hays took a 4-0 lead with four runs in the second inning after loading the bases. Koeiman drove in two in the inning, Hays then blew it open with three runs in the fifth, with three straight doubles coming from Koeiman, Aaron Cornell and MacKenzie Handel.
Lang was set to have a night off behind the plate Saturday with newcomer Todd Reller set to make the start. He caught one inning and made a plate appearance in Friday's game.
Should the Larks lose, the Jayhawk League title could come down to the wire with Dodge City in Wednesday's season finale, but Leo said the Larks won't worry about what others are doing, just focus on themselves as the frontrunner.
"It's a tough league. Teams are very evenly matched," Leo said. "This year, the teams in the west, so to speak, have an advantage over the teams in the Wichita area.
"And, we've played each other eight times out here," Leo added. "We've been beating up on each other. It's a tough grind, and you'll go through some ups and downs."