By CONOR NICHOLL
Elvin Rodriguez estimated he had hardly any game-time reps in approximately six weeks. The shortstop had several weeks off after his spring season ended with Northwood (Tex.) University. Then, he came to the Hays Larks for the third straight year and played in a few games. Rodriguez suffered a hand injury and missed several more weeks.
Known for his glove more than his bat, Rodriguez struggled once he returned to the lineup.
However, Rodriguez has hit better in recent games, one of the reasons why Hays has now won eight straight contests, a season-high, and is on the verge of the program's first Jayhawk League title since 2008. Hays is now 26-10 and 20-10 in the Jayhawk League.
The Larks start a three-game home series against Derby on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m. Hays has averaged 7.1 runs per game this season, one of the best single season offenses in Larks history.
Rodriguez, the most experienced player in terms of games played with the Larks, has noticed a change this season compared to the last two.
"The chemistry," Rodriguez said. "The first two teams were great teams talent-wise. We struggle chemistry. We are different people. We get here in the summer and it's hard to adjust for some guys. I think this club adjusted really well and that's what matters the most in a summer ball club."
Rodriguez normally bats ninth and has pushed his line to .236/364/319 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). That's now on par with his last two years.
In 2010, he batted 233/371/291. In 2011, he carried a 276/347/329 line. In the last seven games, Rodriguez is 8 of 23 (.348 average) with six runs scored and three RBIs. Rodriguez has watched video of his swing and has tried to take as many reps as possible. He has focused on loading earlier so he can get his timing back. Plus, Rodriguez has worked on not trying to pull everything and be early.
"That makes a lot of difference," he said.
On Monday, Rodriguez scored what eventually was the game-winning run in a 3-1 victory against Dodge City. Coupled with a 3 for 5 performance against Liberal last Sunday, Rodriguez knew his swing was coming back.
"I have been doing a lot better," he said.
On Tuesday, he went 2 of 5 with two runs scored and a walk and took a 0 for 3 Wednesday night to end a four-game hitting streak.
"His swing is coming," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "As long as Elvin stays in the middle of the field and doesn't try to get too big. He has been shortening up. ... He needs to continue to do that, because he can give us some production when he does that."
Leo and pitching coach Keith Harper has had to mix and match with a depleted roster. With the pitching staff, they've moved Patrick Flanagan, Jake McDavid and Blake Johnston into starting roles. For the bullpen, the Larks picked up Brett Macari, Fort Hays' first team all-MIAA closer in the spring, and Andy Lewton.
Lewton, like Macari, ended his career this spring with the Tigers. A Hays High School graduate, Lewton was a workhorse for FHSU and finished top-10 all-time in career innings pitched. After several major surgeries earlier in his career, Lewton went 13-14 in three seasons with the Tigers.
"He is going to give us a little depth on the mound," Leo said. "We are a little thin there out of the bullpen."
He finished second, first and second on the team in innings pitched in the last three seasons and worked 198.1 career innings.
With the Larks, Lewton made all but one appearance out of the bullpen in the last three seasons. In 2009, he went 1-1 with a 3.26 earned-run average, followed by a 1-0 record and a 5.40 ERA in 2010 and a 3-2 mark and 4.41 ERA last season.
"Andy's status will be day-to-day what he can do for us," Leo said. "He is working, but when we are at home and when he is not doing anything, he is going to try to help us out."