The Hays Larks finished a perfect non-league slate with a 5-3 win over the Colorado Sox on Sunday at Larks Park, but the good times got started before a pitch was thrown.
Connor Ross, a Fort Hays State University product, was the first Lark introduced and took his spot in the outfield. Shortstop Josh Minjarez was announced next, but he stuck in the Larks’ pre-game circle, as did the rest of the Hays team, leaving Ross alone in the outfield for the duration of the introductions and national anthem.
“It was a little lonely,” Ross said. “They got one on me pretty good. I wasn’t expecting it.”
The prank appeared to be a reflection of a group that has come together
“We’ve got the right kind of personalities,” manager Frank Leo said. “They just seem to click and get along well together.
“They’ve come together pretty quick.”
“The guys are getting along really well,” Ross added. “It’s a fun group of guys to play with, a lot of jokes and a lot of laughs.”
Ross said the fun off the field has paid off on the field, and that seemed apparent in Sunday’s series finale.
After starting pitcher Alex Lopez worked a 1-2-3 top of the first, the Larks’ leadoff hitter opened the game by drilling the second pitch he saw into the gap in right-center. Ross jogged into third base as the Sox center fielder got the ball back into the infield. Minjarez plated Ross with a ball hit to the third baseman to give the Larks an early lead.
Lopez worked around a throwing error in the second before Austin Unrein made it 2-0 in the home half of the inning with a single that scored catcher Mikey Gangwish.
The Lark starter kept the visitors off base again in the third, and the Larks stretched the lead again in the bottom half. Third baseman Jacob Boston was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning before Mike Mioduszewski singled. Andy Shadid followed with a fielder’s choice that saw Mioduszewski forced out at second, but Boston and Shadid came around to score on a two-out double from Gangwish that made it 4-0.
Despite not allowing a hit in his three innings, Lopez was replaced by Stephen Yancey to start the fourth. As he did in the three previous games, the Larks’ manager was focused on dividing the workload in the non-league portion of the schedule.
“We’re preparing,” Leo said. “Alex is going to start later in the week. Yancey is going to start on Wednesday. We want to get those guys their work.”
Yancey allowed the first hit, a double in the top of the fifth, but spun two scoreless frames to continue the shutout.
Mioduszewski provided the Larks’ final run when he blasted a solo homer off the light pole in left in the bottom of the fifth.
After a scoreless inning, the Sox offense got on the board in the seventh, with a two-out home run from third baseman Tyler Mohr. Reliever Ty Schwanner rebounded and pitched a scoreless eighth before Chad Smith earned the save despite allowing a run in the ninth.
Lopez earned his first win as a Lark after striking out three in as many innings. The four Larks pitchers combined to strike out 10 Sox against four hits.
“Everybody that we put on the mound, we’re confident in,” Ross said.
“It’s nice having a really strong pitching staff.”
Mioduszewski led the Larks with three hits, while Gangwish and Unrein added two apiece, as the hosts finished with 10 hits.
While Ross said the four games prior to Jayhawk League play served as the Larks’ version of spring training, there still was something to play for, according to the manager.
“We need to teach them how to win and get that winning feeling, get come together as a team,” Leo said. “That was what was important about these four ballgames.”
Now, the hope is that the hot start carries into the more important part of the schedule. A change in league rules gives the winner of the first half of the season a berth in the National Baseball Congress World Series. The Larks are aware of the change and hope to take advantage.
“We’ve talked a lot about winning the month of June so that way we don’t have any pressure come July,” Ross said.
“We’re really focused on getting a good start, coming out and winning a lot of series early on.”
They’ll have their opportunity to start on the right foot Tuesday when El Dorado comes to town to start a three-game series.
The Larks are still missing eight or nine players they hope to have by the end of the week, Leo said. A couple players are holding out until after Thursday’s Major League Baseball draft, while a trio of New Mexico Lobos just saw their collegiate season end over the weekend.
When all the pieces are present, Leo believes he’s got the potential to make a return to the postseason after a bunch of injuries derailed the 2015 Larks.
“We got some new guys coming in that need to blend in with what we’ve done,” Leo said. “Barring injuries, it could be a fun summer.”
Ross, who joined the Larks late last season after a number of injuries, feels the same way.
“We’re just going to get better defensively as we will offensively,” Ross said. “It’s going to come together really well, I think.”