By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks manager Frank Leo found many positives in Thursday's 6-1 non-league home victory against Boulder (Colo.) at Larks Park. First, several players, including shortshop Ty Leffler and catcher Ty Detmer, earned a much-needed rest. Leffler had started every game this year, Detmer had started 16 of the first 20 contests.
Secondly, second baseman Zair Koeiman, a veteran presence, had a strong game and showed no problems after returning from a groin injury. Left fielder Evan Gruener had struggled with a .174 average this summer, but delivered a diving catch down the left field line, reached base three times and had a sacrifice fly.
Landon Harper, the son of Hays pitching coach Keith Harper and a former Fort Hays State University, Larks and minor league pitcher, delivered a strong outing at 32 years old.
"The script went the way we wanted it to go," Leo said.
Leo said Harper had one day to prepare. Harper, able to pitch because it wasn't a league contest, worked six innings and allowed one run for the victory. Harper allowed at least one base runner in every inning except the sixth, but walked only one batter all game.
"He kept his poise," Leo said. "I think that's important for our guys to see that. No matter what age you are, it's all about commanding the strike zone and changing speeds."
Austin Unrein, a former Hays High School standout and current Fort Hays pitcher, made his first appearance for the Larks. He pitched two scoreless innings of relief. Kyle Leroy, a former all-conference pitcher for FHSU, worked the ninth. Hays opens a key three-game home series tonight against El Dorado at Larks Park.
"Now we should be fresh and rested," Leo said.
Derek Birginske (.356 average) is expected back Saturday after he left the club in a non-injury related matter for a few days. Hays has picked up right-handed pitchers Brett DeGagne from University of North Dakota and Chris Gammon from Chandler Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College. Pitcher Ian Bentley, who had a strong season last summer, will come in next Tuesday. Injured infielder Shane Willoughby is expected to resume baseball activities next week.
"We are getting a little stronger," Leo said.
Koeiman, playing in his ninth game this summer, went 2 of 5, including an infield single. Another time, he ranged far in the hole between first and second on an infield hit.
"I think he is back to 100 percent," Leo said. "He went left, he went right, and his left leg, that's what he hurt. ... It's good to have him back. He plays very good defense and brings a steady presence. I think it's a boost. He is a veteran guy."
Hays (12-8) scored five runs in the first three innings, two in the first and second and one in the third. The Larks had four singles in the first inning for two runs against Boulder starter Tyler Patty, who was Fort Hays' ace for most of the spring. Patty worked two innings in the loss.
"He has done well," Boulder manager Mark Laschanzky said. "He has battled for us. He has been a warrior, and that's what I expect from him. Got some timely hits from the Larks tonight, and a couple infield hits, and we had a couple errors and a couple walks and things kind of opened up. He has been really solid for us. He is a great kid and a great competitor. We are happy to have him aboard."
Boulder (17-10) is making its annual long road trip through Kansas and Nebraska. Boulder was rained out in El Dorado, so played two games in Omaha, one apiece at Derby, Haysville and Hays in six days.
In the second inning, Gruener, batting leadoff, tripled down to left field. Gruener has 10 hits, but two of the team's three triples.
"We put him there tonight to get more at-bats," Leo said of Gruener batting first. "We want him to get plenty of at-bats, and that's why we kind of set our lineup the way it was. He looked comfortable there. I don't know if that's what we will do, but he got some at-bats tonight. When a kid gets a chance, and he can show you something, he will keep getting chances."
In addition to the diving catch in the sixth - the ball stayed on the edge of his glove like a snowcone - Gruener also threw a runner out at second.
"He had his downs lately," Leo said. "Hopefully this will springboard him, give him some confidence where he can be a factor for us here down the stretch."
Center fielder Michael Burns, redshirted this spring at Wichita State University, is now the lone player to start all 21 games this summer. Burns leads the team with a .435 average (40 of 92) after he went 4 of 5 with two RBIs. His only out was a hard-hit line drive to the second baseman in the second inning. If it had gotten through, two runs likely would have scored.
"A very good player," Leo said. "For a kid that didn't get any at-bats this spring and was redshirted, he is playing like he didn't miss a beat. Outstanding thus far. Defensively, we have seen him make some top-10 plays just about every other night."