Hundreds of fans experienced the newest additions to the Hays Larks roster and Larks Park on Thursday night.
Just as many saw last season, a bit of magic worked in favor of the hometown team, propelling the Larks to a 5-2 come-from-behind victory against the Denver Cougars (2-2) to open the season.
“It’s our spring training, and we don’t have any practice time, so we’re trying to take a look at everybody and get a feel,” said Frank Leo, who is on his 34th season as manager of the Larks. “Coming in, I like what we have recruited. We’re still not at full strength, but I liked what I saw tonight.”
The Larks unveiled their trio of additions to Larks Park, which include a newly built concession stand, canopy and beer counter referred to as the Larks Nest.
While the facilities were enjoyed early in the game, it was the additions on the field catching eyes throughout the night.
However, Denver opened the scoring in the second by getting to Colorado School of Mines lefty Sam Hall early in the inning. The Cougars scored one before stranding a pair and having another runner tagged out at home on a chopper to first baseman Austin Unrein, who fired a rocket to catcher Garrett McKinzie.
The Larks got one back in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Andy Shadid, a Bradley freshman, scoring Eastern Michigan junior Mike Mioduszewski.
After leaving Unrein stranded in the fifth, the Larks made sure to capitalize on runners. With Makey Ganwish and Mioduszewski on the corners, Fort Hays State junior Ty Redington played a testy grounder to third. Kyle Robbins’ throw was out of reach of Denver first baseman Michael Cerullo, allowing a pair to score for a 3-1 lead after six.
Despite six walks on the evening, Denver starter Kelvan Pilot worked his way to six strikeouts and allowed just three hits. He was pulled with three earned runs.
“Their guy (Pilot) did a good job on the mound. I thought he did,” Leo said. “He was sneaky quick and had a little breaking pitch. We got our guys to get their feet on the ground a little bit. They helped us score those runs, but I thought we barreled some balls. We’ll get better, offensively.”
Fort Hays senior Connor Ross tacked on a run in the seventh on a Jacob Boston RBI single.
Denver got one back on a fielder’s choice in the eighth, but it was too little too late. Shadid added a run on a wild pitch later in the inning to settle the final score at 5-2.
McKinzie and Shadid finished with the lone multi-hit game for Hays. McKinzie went 2-for-3 with a walk and run scored, while Shadid scored and drove in a run.
The nine pitchers used by Hays combined for 12 strikeouts with five recording two apiece. Each pitcher threw one inning on the night.
With four returners from last year — McKinzie, Ross and pitchers D.J. Carr and Augie Gallardo — Leo is turning to those established players to teach the newcomers the ropes before Jayhawk League play gets underway Tuesday.
“It’s just the Larks way,” Leo said. “You’ve gotta teach them the Larks’ tradition, the Larks’ way. That’s important. We’ve gotta learn that here early in the season. It’s nice to get the guys to come together with four ballgames before we break into league play.”
Olinger (Colorado School of Mines), a Hays native, is holding out on joining the Larks with next week’s MLB Draft approaching, as are other players for now, according to Leo.
Carr was handed the ball to start the game, though Leo used nine different pitchers to get a feel for his staff. Having experience with McKinzie behind the plate last season took stress off him coming into the season opener.
“It makes things so much easier for a pitcher,” Carr said. “Knowing you’ve got a big guy back there who’s willing to get down and block some pitches for you, it really just makes things easy.”
Among the new additions to the team include shortstop Josh Minjarez (Texas-Arlington) and Boston (Mesa CC) manning the hot corner.
“I thought Josh really played well,” Leo said. “We handled some tough chances, and you’ve gotta have that defense. There’s gonna be close games. I thought Jacob Boston made some nice plays on some slow rollers. They’ve both got good arms from that side of the field. That was impressive.”
On the pitching staff, Carr and Gallardo (Eastern Michigan) factor in as the leaders of the rotation.
“Those two guys gotta lead the way, but I think we’ve got some good arms,” Leo said. “Once they get that feel of Larks baseball, it’s only gonna be good for us.”
The Jayhawk League revised its schedule to have each team play Tuesday to Sunday each week during the season, with Mondays serving as off days. With the league ridding itself of divisions, each team will face off in a three-game home-and-home series throughout the season.
To compensate, the teams ruled winners of June and July will receive bids to championship week of the National Baseball Congress World Series. The two will play a three-game series to decide the league title.
After missing the postseason last season, a rarity under Leo, he said his team knows it’s not an outcome that can happen in back-to-back seasons.
“They know that’s the Larks’ thing — to get down to the World Series,” Leo said. “Unfortunately, last year we got banged up and couldn’t do that. It’s a new year, a new page, a new chapter. And we hope it’s gonna be a good one.”
As for in the dugout, McKinzie said the players recognize what needs done without words.
“There’s kinda like an unspoken nod between us,” McKinzie said. “You can tell it amongst each other that we didn’t do what we should’ve done last year. We’re trying to instill that quiet confidence, that quiet hunger towards getting back to Wichita that way we can really compete in the NBC.”
With the schedule intensified and calling for six consecutive days of games, the league ridded teams of 25-man roster limits, something Leo believes it was necessary given the 42-game grind over the next two months.
“That was a necessity with playing six days in a row for seven weeks,” Leo said. “The 42-game schedule kinda dictated that. You better have some more arms. You better make sure you have three catchers and plenty of depth and versatility. I think our position guys bring a lot of versatility to what we can do.”
The Larks return to action with a 6 p.m. doubleheader Saturday against the Colorado Sox at Larks Park. It's the Larks' only scheduled doubleheader this season. Hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwursts and bottles of water will be sold for $1.