The aftermath of the Hays Larks’ sweep of the Derby Twins on Sunday at Larks Park resembled more of a reuniting of long-lost friends than a gathering of baseball players just weeks into their friendships.
Chad Smith broke out other-worldly dance moves. Other players continued games of catch with young fans scattered amongst the diamond. But the man of the night was Alex Lopez, who deservedly signed countless autographs and received endless amounts of hugs after leading Hays to a 1-0 win in Game 1 of the doubleheader.
Lopez faced the minimum 21 batters in the seven-inning contest, allowing just two Twins to reach base.
“It kinda starts out in the bullpen. If you feel good, a lot of times you can transfer it out to the mound,” Lopez said. “I went out there and those first couple innings just tried to get ahead early, throw a lot of strikes and just let them get themselves out this game. The odds are good that you’re gonna get out if you swing the bat. I just wanted to throw a lot of strikes, fill up the zone and let me really good defense do a lot of work.”
The celebration that ensued after an 8-2 win in Game 2 emphasized what impressed Devlin Granberg about his new summer club the most after playing on three different teams before coming to Hays.
“Summer ball, you know, guys are from all over the place. I think we’re really getting to know each other well and coming together,” Granberg said. “It’s a special group related to those, for sure. We haven’t come together like we have any other summer ball I’ve been a part of.”
Neither offense broke through in the first 2.5 innings of Game 1 with Hays’ Josh Minjarez marking the lone baserunner on a first-inning single.
Derby pitcher Nick Burnham made few mistakes, though a leadoff walk of Jacob Boston in the third proved to be the biggest of Game 1.
Boston watched Ball 4 go by before stealing second with Matt Waller in the batter’s box. The next pitch saw Waller bloop just his third hit of the season into right field, bringing Boston around for the lone run of the game. Minjarez occupied first on a walk to put runners on the corners only for Austin O’Brien to be sent down on three pitches.
Derby’s first runner of the game came on a single by Gavin Bourgeois, who robbed Granberg off an extra-base hit at the left-field wall in the second inning. Waller helped out his teammate by gunning down Bourgeois at second, his first failed steal of the season.
Granberg and Boston strung together a walk and single in the fourth before being stranded on a ground out by Waller.
The second and final Twin hit came via a single in the fifth. As he did all afternoon, Lopez induced a groundball that led to the first double play turned against Derby all season.
“He was fun to watch pitch,” manager Frank Leo said. “He was in that rhythm that, you know, when pitchers are feeling that rhythm, the feel like they can put the ball wherever they want on any pitch, throw any pitch they want. I thought his rhythm was good. His command was outstanding. I just liked his demeanor.”
No runners reached base over the final two innings, leading to a seven-inning shutout win for Lopez (4-0). The Texas Wesleyan righty saw his ERA drop to 2.22 in the outing. He threw just 65 pitches, an average of less than 10 per inning.
“Facing the minimum is pretty cool,” Lopez said, unable to hold back a smile. “I haven’t done that in a full game before, so that was a really cool thing to do. It’s something I kinda caught on to after we turned the double play and then we threw the guy out at second, too. I was like, ‘Well this is kinda cool.’ It was a really cool opportunity to be able to do something close to perfection without doing it.”
Augie Gallardo took the mound in Game 2 looking to carry momentum from Lopez’s start, though he showed shaky command to begin the first.
The Eastern Michigan ace came up on the wrong end of two 3-2 counts, walking two Derby batters. Brennan Grant lined out to Connor Ross in center field.
Derby limited Hays to just four runs over the first two games of the series, though the offense finally broke through against Matt Whalen in the first.
The first six batters reached base before a strikeout by Boston. Jax Biggers, Josh Minjarez and O’Brien strung together singles, Biggers scoring on the third hit of the inning. Minjarez scored on a single by Mike Mioduszewski, which Nate Olinger followed with a walk.
O’Brien and Mioduszewski scored on a single by Granberg, the latter coming via an throwing by error by Grant at shortstop. Olinger came around on a single by Garrett McKinzie while a fielder’s choice against Connor Ross allowed Granberg to cross the plate for a 6-0 lead after one.
“It was really nice,” Granberg said. “I think we were just a little more patient. I think we were swinging hard the first inning in that first game. We still got the W, but offensively that’s not what we want. In that second game, that first inning was big for us. I thought we were patient. That was the best inning and we were swinging hard.”
Derby got to Gallardo with back-to-back hits to start the second inning. Logan Burke connected on a single prior to Marco Burgarello’s double off the wall in left-center. Dustin Miller followed with a one-out single to get Derby on the board. Gallardo avoided any further damage with back-to-back strikeouts.
O’Brien got the run back with an opposite-field solo home run in the bottom half of the second.
Granberg gave Gallardo another insurance run with a two-out single in the fifth, allowing Minjarez to score from second. O’Brien and Granberg each finished with two hits and two RBI apiece.
Cole Hendrix relieved Gallardo to start the sixth. Gallardo allowed two runs on five hits and three walks. He struck out four. Hendrix walked a pair of runners on the inning but helped his cause with three strikeouts to escape the inning unscathed.
“When we pitch well, it’s really hard to beat us. Our offense is so good that we can give up two runs and almost be guaranteed we’re gonna score more than that,” Lopez said. “We just know as starters if we can go out there and get quality innings for six or seven innings, a lot of times our offense is gonna pick us up no matter what happens. We trust it a lot, so we go out there and we’re confident and we throw a lot of strikes and we get the job done.”
Hays is scheduled to return to action with the start of a three-game set with Dodge City on Tuesday. The Larks and A’s, the top two teams in the Jayhawk League, will play in Dodge City on Tuesday and Thursday with the middle game set for Wednesday in Hays.
One win against the A’s will secure the Larks first place in June, pushing Hays into the Jayhawk League championship series to end July and on to Championship Week at the National Baseball Congress World Series. The Larks hold a four-game lead over the A’s after Sunday.
“We wanna have a good six weeks left with there guys. We wanna get into the NBC and we wanna get far in the NBC,” Leo said. “These guys feed off each other, they enjoy playing the game and they play the game right. … We’re just gonna keep doing what we’re doing. We’re gonna put that on the back burner.”
Leo made his frustrations of the missing the tournament last year — a rarity under his 34-year tenure — known to the squad prior to the season. Lopez realizes what is at stake come Tuesday in Dodge City.
“Coach Leo made it very evident that he wasn’t happy with what happened last year and that it had a lot to do with injuries and a lot to do with bad luck which is something we haven’t run into a lot,” Lopez said. “We clinch June and July becomes a lot easier for us. We get a lot more rest and we can have a little more fun and relax.
“Right now, everyone’s playing really loose and we’re having a lot of fun and we’re winning a lot of games.”