By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks manager Frank Leo met with assistant coaches Keith Harper and Dusty Washburn for several minutes after Wednesday's 4-3 loss to Liberal at Larks Park. As the crowd and players filed out of the ballpark, the trio continued to discuss Hays' options, especially with the pitching staff and the infield after the Larks dropped their third straight contest.
Hays lost all three games in the late innings, including allowing two runs in the seventh and one in the ninth Wednesday. The bullpen, without a dominant closer like Michael Burchett from 2011, is unsettled.
Hays is limited without shortstop Elvin Rodriguez, a defensive stalwart and three-year Lark. Rodriguez will be re-examined next Wednesday.
"We can't afford to wait much longer, because we have very little options," Leo said.
This weekend, the Larks host Haysville, but will be without starting pitchers Justin Ziegler and Patrick Flanagan, Bradley (Ill.) University products. The duo is attending a wedding.
Against Liberal, the most pressing matter was the bullpen and an offense that produced just six hits. Starting pitcher Alex Ellison worked 61βΡ3 solid innings and allowed three runs. Ryan Mas (1-1) permitted the eventual game-winning run in the ninth off a leadoff hit batter and two singles.
"That's not a good sign, because in this league, you have to win late," Leo said. "That's what we did last year and we made some nice runs, and we've got to learn how to do that."
The offense struggled against four Bee Jay pitchers, including winner John Branum, who finished the game with 31βΡ3 innings of scoreless relief. Among the returning Larks, center fielder Aaron Cornell finished 0 for 4 and designated hitter Mackenzie Handel was 0 for 2 with three walks.
Jon Ryan, in his second contest back after he recovered from a back injury, went 1-for-4. Cornell, the reigning Jayhawk League Player of the Year, has seen his average dip to .244, while Handel is at .325, fourth-best on the team. Claudio Valencia, who replaced Rodriguez at shortstop, is batting .278 after a 1-for-3 performance.
"We got to get some of these veteran guys hot," Leo said. "They have proven they can do it here."
Ellison gave the Larks (7-3, 4-3 Jayhawk League) a chance to win with another strong outing. Normally known for his control, Ellison opened the spring with a 20.25 earned-run average in his first six appearances in the spring for Fort Hays State University. He walked six in 12 innings.
Then Ellison went 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA in his final seven appearances (39 innings) down the stretch. In two appearances with the Larks, Ellison is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA. Wednesday marked his sixth straight start with at least six innings.
Ellison said he had "great command" of all his pitches, fastball, changeup, curveball and slider. He allowed a first inning homer and then worked five shutout innings.
"I competed, kept the ball down, threw strikes, just couldn't get the W tonight," Ellison said. "... I try not to think about the past, just think about the present and keep moving forward."
Ellison covered 19 outs in 73 pitches, but ran into trouble in the seventh. The right-hander collected the first out of the inning when third baseman Joe Betcher made a diving play -- one of several outstanding plays by Betcher. He also made a nice putout on a bunt and barehanded a ground ball that led to another out.
"He has just been playing phenomenal," Ellison said.
Then Ellison, guarding a 3-1 lead, allowed two hard-hit singles before Tyler Baker doubled in a run. Mas came in and Liberal (6-4, 5-3 Jayhawk) tied the game on a sacrifice fly. Leo backed the decision to keep Ellison in the game after the singles.
"He made some adjustments earlier in the game," Leo said. "He got up a little bit and then was able to come back around the knees and that's where he has to live. He deserved to give himself a chance. It's not like our bullpen has been lights out. If our bullpen had been lights out, it makes the decision a little easier."
Hays, which scored single runs in the first, third and sixth innings, couldn't push across any more runs. The Larks had opportunities, especially with second baseman Zair Koeiman, who went 0 for 1 with two walks and two hit by pitches.
Koeiman paces the team in average (.357) and by a large margin in on-base percentage (.548). He has already been hit by a team-high seven pitches. Koeiman scored twice, but was stranded twice more in scoring position. He also hit into a double play in the eighth inning.
"On-base percentage is important, but you got to get guys around," Leo said.
On Friday, left-hander Shawn Lewick (2-0, 0.00 ERA in 10 innings) will start for Hays against Haysville at Larks Park. The Heat are at the bottom of the league standings. However, in a twist, the limited Larks have played better on the road (4-1) than at home (3-2).
"Everybody has beaten somebody at their place and when you are at home, that's where you want to win," Leo said.