By CONOR NICHOLL
After a summer full of roster changes, the Hays Larks unveiled their likely starting lineup for the 75th annual National Baseball Congress World Series and completed the regular season Sunday night against Valley Center. Hays, boosted by new acquisitions, including third baseman Isaac Garcia, reliever Devyn Rivera and the return of No. 3 hitter and left fielder Rafael Valenzuela, defeated Valley Center 6-4 at Larks Park.
"That is kind of what we wanted to showcase tonight and take a look at," Hays manager Frank Leo said.
Hays completed the regular season at 27-14, ran its season-best winning streak to eight games and went 9-1 in non-conference action. The retooled Larks will open the World Series at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Cape Girardeau, Mo., at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Both clubs team-pitched in Sunday's tuneup.
"We lost some guys, and we had to fix some things if we are going to go down there and compete," Leo said.
Leo provided his new acquisitions and his usual roster another chance to fine tune before the Larks open play in the World Series. Last week, he got in touch with Valley Center manager Pat Hon and scheduled Sunday's contest. The Valley Center program, i=n its first year of existence, rolled through the Walter Johnson League with a 23-10 record, four games better than any other team, and also won the league tourney. Valley Center will open Wednesday at the World Series at 5 p.m.
"Frank got a hold of us probably Wednesday or Thursday last week," Hon said. "Worked out a time where we got enough guys to come out here and make the trip. Just get in one more game before the (World Series) and cut that big gap down. I think both of us had six or seven days off, and we both wanted to fill that hole. Worked out good for both of us."
Hays had its usual lineup, including center fielder Brandon Eckerle, first baseman Rick Devereaux, second baseman Jason Morriss, shortstop Sean Wilson, right fielder Codi Harshman and Joe Huwer at designated hitter. Huwer is one of several players that might start at DH at the World Series. Ace Andrew Heck started the game and pitched the first inning. No. 2 starter Eddie Carl (5-4) earned the win after he struck out the side in the second.
All of Hays' new players helped in the win. At the start of the summer, Garcia was expected to join Hays after he batted .386 for Angelo State (Texas) University, a Division II powerhouse. Garcia, though, tore ligaments in his wrist in April.
"I hurt it when I was up to bat," he said. "I felt an unusual pain that shot through my wrist and my forearm. I had an MRI, and it turned out that I tore a ligament."
Garcia arrived last Wednesday and will start at third base for Hays in the World Series opener. In three contests with Hays, Garcia is 4-for-8 with three RBIs and three walks.
"I wish I could have come out here sooner than I expected," he said. "Unfortunately, my wrist kept me from coming out here. But my host family has been very caring people, and I get along with teammates very well. I enjoy it out here. The atmosphere, it's good, I love it."
Garcia walked and scored in a four-run first inning for the Larks that featured a bunt single from Eckerle, an error on a popup by second baseman Brantley Miller and a two-run double from Valenzuela off losing pitcher Nick Robertson. Valenzuela returned to Hays last week after he missed two weeks because of a wedding in Mexico. He went 2-for-3 with a walk Sunday and carries a .366 average and .524 slugging percentage, both second-best on the team.
"I think Isaac is going to do a nice job for us at third base, and him and Rafael both have three games in and 12 to 13 at-bats," Leo said. "In Rafael's case, that is probably enough. For Isaac, the longer we stay in that tournament, probably the better he is going to get, the more pitches he sees."
Valenzuela, able to play third base and the corner outfield spots, will be in left field full-time at the World Series. On Sunday, he made a long running catch in left-center and also made a diving grab on a sinking liner by Valley Center's Mike Williams.
"Rafa played a good left," Leo said. "Wednesday night, he made another diving play going to the line and made a catch."
Hays added another run in third on a walk, single, forceout and error by Miller and took a 6-1 lead after four innings on a sacrifice fly by Garcia. Rivera, the ace for Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) Community College who can hit 92 to 94 miles per hour with his fastball, pitched a scoreless seventh. Rivera was expected to go in the amateur draft this June, but was not selected.
"Devyn Rivera, another guy that we would love to have at the beginning of the year, didn't happen," Leo said. "We like what he brings.
"A late inning guy and the longer we stay in (the World Series), he can possibly start. Probably seven, eight, ninth (inning guy)," he added.
Rivera spent the summer pitching for the Arizona Collegiate League. After he threw about 30 innings, he flew into Hays and made his first appearance Sunday. He walked one, struck out one and allowed a single in the seventh. Afterward, Rivera was happy to join a team that hasn't lost since July 21, and after a summer of change, enjoy a solidified roster for the NBC.
"They seem to be pretty good," Rivera said. "I am excited."