By NICK McQUEEN
WICHITA -- The 2012 season, of course, didn't end the way the Hays Larks would have liked it to.
After battling some difficulties in late July to make a late-season push and win the Jayhawk League, the Larks fell in the first round of the 78th annual NBC World Series at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium -- only to make a turnaround and run to the tourney's final four.
The season ended Friday night in a 6-2 loss in the semifinals to perennial contender Seattle, a team that had placed second in the season finale two out of the previous three years.
The final game was marred by a few missed opportunities that had plagued the Larks even in their six straight games won in the elimination bracket to make a semifinal appearance.
But, the Larks know that's not what they'll remember when they look back. People will remember the run, not the end.
"These guys, I love every single one of them," second-year Lark Aaron Cornell said following Friday's loss. "I would go to war with them any day.
"When you come up and do something like we did, it's magical. We might not have won it, but people are going to remember the run we made."
The run started in July when the Larks' starting pitching staff took two big hits, losing Alex Ellison after some off-the-field issues, and Shawn Lewick, the team's top pitcher, was signed by the Wichita Wingnuts.
Lewick pitched just one game, and was cut by the independent league team, leaving him ineligible to come back for the rest of the summer. That, mixed with several injuries in the starting lineup, forced many changes in the month of July.
"We played banged up in that month of July, and we had to make a run for that league title," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "...Our starting position players got no days off."
Still, the Larks finished the regular season on a 13-3 run in July, and won their first Jayhawk League title since 2008, the seventh in the last 12 seasons.
The finish at the NBC is the Larks' first third-place trophy. The Larks have finished second four times and fourth four times under Leo.
"Baseball is a game of overcoming adversity," Leo said. "The team that can overcome it is the team that is going to be successful. Our guys did that this summer."
Entering the month, the Larks were sitting in third place in the league behind frontrunners Liberal and Dodge City. The final stretch included a 9-1 record at home to claim the crown and secure the automatic berth for this year's World Series.
"Our homestands are great," Cornell said. "We draw in a ton of fans every game, and it's just awesome. The host families and Hays, they take you in as their own. That just makes everything great."
Larks named top offense
Some might remember the Larks for leaving 81 baserunners stranded in eight games at the NBC, but getting those runners on was enough to lead the tourney. Led by Cornell and right fielder Austin Darby with 15 and 13 hits, respectively, Hays topped the field in hits with 73, doubles with 15, and total bases with 96. Hays' team average of .278 also led the 32-team field.
"Our guys did square some balls up, and we had everything it took to make a championship run. We did that, we just didn't make the championship game."
Cornell was a big factor in the team's success at the NBC. After a slow start to the summer, the Oklahoma State University junior-to-be turned it on in July and batted .316 for the summer, second best on the squad for players that were in Hays the entire season. He hit .441 in the NBC with two doubles.
"It's just about getting comfortable. I did struggle early, but working in the cage all summer, talking to the guys and trying to relax at the plate helped," Cornell said. "I just love it (in Hays). It's a great atmosphere. I love the town, and it's a great ball field to play on."
Darby in the books
The Larks' most consistent hitter all summer, and one of the leaders in RBIs in the NBC, Darby made it on two Larks all-time lists this summer. Darby collected 13 hits in the NBC, averaged .419 and sat atop the field after the semifinal round with seven RBIs. Darby's 17 doubles this season tie him for eighth all-time for the Larks, and his 70 hits tie him for sixth place.
The Larks, as a team, this summer set a new club record for being hit by pitches. The hold record of 46, set in 1996, was bested by seven.
Solid tourney for Lewick
When Lewick was signed by the Wingnuts in late June, the left-hander, a Fort Hays State University graduate and Pretty Prairie native, was cut after a rough outing. Lewick was able to come back and play, but not until the Larks qualified for the NBC. He made the most of his second opportunity, collecting two wins, a 1.29 earned-run average, one complete game (7 innings). In 14 innings, Lewick surrendered nine hits, two earned runs, and struck out 10 with four walks.
"First time I've thrown in a month," Lewick said after he picked up his first win in the tournament, a 3-2 decision against the Newton Rebels. "So, I felt a little awkward. Not everything was clicking the right way, but what happened worked for me."
Lewick picked up his second win when Hays run-ruled the defending champion Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters in the Super Six round on Thursday. He pitched all seven innings, giving up just three hits with one walk and eight strikeouts. Before leaving the Larks in June, Lewick was 2-0 as the team's ace.