By CONOR NICHOLL
During the spring, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo surveyed his roster and started to mix and match lineups and players.
Then, Leo lost six players and could lose another one, including his starting shortstop, third baseman and a pitcher that throws 94 miles per hour. In his three decades as Hays manager, Leo said he has never made this many late phone calls to set a roster.
"Finding some replacements is not going to be easy to do, but we are going to work on it," Leo said.
Last sumemer, the Larks went 35-17, won the Jayhawk League title for the sixth time in the last eight seasons, and earned a top 10 finish at the National Baseball Congress World Series. This year, they will open their season Tuesday at home against Lindsborg with a roster still in flux.
Start time is 7 p.m. at Larks Park.
"This is not an easy time to recruit," Leo said. "School is out, players are home. Most of them are already committed somewhere. We will do the best we can."
Hays will return six players from last season's team: pitchers Eddie Carl and Chase Johnson, outfielders Brandon Eckerle and Chase Schippers, catcher-outfielder Joe Huwer and utilityman Andrew Heck. But Leo looks to add at least two players, possibly three, by the time conference play starts June 8.
Currently, Hays has only one shortstop on its roster in Heck. However, Heck holds value in the outfield and on the mound after he batted .314 and posted a 2-3 record and team-best 3.78 earned-run average this spring for Duquesne.
"I would really like to use Andrew Heck more as a starting pitcher this year," Leo said. "He posted some pretty good numbers. He had a nice offensive season this current year with Duquesne. Looking forward to see how that transpires to picking the wood back up this summer. I know pitching-wise, he was probably their top guy."
Last summer, Heck hit .277 for the Larks with a 2-1 record and 3.10 ERA, including an emergency quality start against Liberal in the World Series.
"The key will be we have to find another shortstop," Leo said. "The idea with Heck was he has played a lot of outfield. He would be a great utility guy plus could start on the mound for us and could give us great flexibility. Now when you think about him just being a shortstop and don't have another shortstop, it is going to take away from his mound time a little bit. I don't want that to happen. We are going to work to try and find one."
Shortstop is one of several positions that Leo has had trouble filling. Bryce Ortega, University of Arizona's leadoff hitter and a player Leo called "a stud, great player, great defender," was expected to play shortstop for the Larks. Ortega, though, is changing majors and has to stay for summer school. The Larks have also lost Michigan State pitcher AJ Achter (3.76 ERA this spring). Achter is headed to the Cape Cod League. Coty Green, University of Tennessee-Martin's ace, has summer school. Steve Sabbatino, 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA for Notre Dame, headed back home instead of coming to Hays.
"Too many (phone calls)," Leo said. "You kind of foresaw a lineup. Starting in March, you start to follow the guys, you start to piece a lineup together. Putting a rotation together somewhat. Things do change a lot, but excited with what you had."
Leo has filled third base. Angelo State (Texas) University's Isaac Garcia was expected to play for Hays after he batted .386 with 38 RBI for 45-20 ASU. Garcia tore ligaments in his hand and will miss the summer. Leo, though, picked up Josh Garcia from South Mountain (Ariz.) CC to fill Isaac Garcia's place.
"I think we have got a very capable replacement in Josh Garcia," Leo said. "He is signed to go to the University of Arizona."
Angelo State's Jason Morriss will play second, while Ben Turner from University of Missouri can see time at first. Leo carries four catchers, including Olie Goulder from Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) and Huwer. Huwer, who can also play the outfield, batted .305 last summer after not playing collegiate spring baseball in 2008. Huwer transferred from Washington State University and went to Wenatchee Valley Junior College this season.
"He really put up some at-bats considering he saw no competitive pitching all spring," Leo said. "Position-wise, he is trying to make the transition to catcher full-time and that is one reason why he transferred to the junior college because they said, we will use you as a catcher."
The outfield includes Eckerle, who hit .298, collected 24 steals and earned all-Jayhawk League last summer, Schippers and Chandler-Gilbert's Kyle Peterson, who can also close.
"A very flexible guy for us that can do a whole lot of things," Leo said.
The pitching staff remains unsettled. Devyn Rivera posted a 4-5 record and 3.98 ERA for Chandler-Gilbert this spring but is not going to play this summer. He could be selected high in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft next week. Garcia hits 92-94 miles an hour on the radar gun.
Returners include Carl (3-3, 4.63 ERA) and Johnson, named the No. 7 prospect in the Jayhawk League by Baseball America last year. Johnson, used mainly as a closer until he was moved into the rotation in late July, posted a 1-0 record and 2.94 ERA and 13.63 strikeouts per nine innings, sixth-most in Larks' history.
"He may be a starter from the get-go," Leo said.
One late addition was Fort Hays State University senior left-hander Eric Gilliland, the oldest player on the roster. Gilliland, on the Tigers' top 10 list for single season and career innings pitched, is a two-time all-conference pitcher.
"We lost some arms," Leo said. "Coach Harper had talked to him a little bit. Being his senior year he wasn't sure what he wanted to do and then as the end of the year rolled around, Keith Harper and I just decided, hey let's just give a call and see what his interests are. You can always use a good lefty on the mound."
But Leo is still looking for a few more players in an uncharacteristically busy spring.
"It's been one of the tougher end-of- the-year things to kind of get the team going," Leo said.