By RANDY GONZALES
After a grueling Jayhawk League schedule, Wednesday night's non-conference game gave the Hays Larks a chance to stay sharp before next week's National Baseball Congress World Series.
The fact that the Larks needed to score a late run for their seventh straight victory, a 4-3 win over Junction City at Larks Park, was all the better, said Hays manager Frank Leo.
"Better playing than practice," Leo said. "This was a close game -- good, too." Hays broke a 3-3 tie with an unearned run in the seventh inning. Brandon Eckerle led off the inning against reliever Tanner Neuberger with a walk. Leo had Andrew Heck lay down a bunt to get Eckerle to second. It did more than that. The perfectly-placed bunt forced a hurried throw by Neuberger, who air-mailed the ball past the first baseman and down the right-field line. Eckerle scored all the way from first, and Heck made it to third on the hit and error.
"Got the bunt down when we needed to," Leo said.
The Larks couldn't add on, though, stranding Heck at third with no outs. The fireballing Neuberger struck out the side to keep Junction City within a run.
"Little disappointed with our situational hitting," Leo said.
Right-hander Andy Lewton pitched a scoreless eighth, with two strikeouts.
"Andy Lewton, I thought, was very good," Leo said.
Leo turned to right-hander Kyle Peterson to close it out. Peterson allowed an infield single and walked a batter before retiring the side in the ninth for his second save.
"Peterson was unlucky with that single," Leo said. "I thought he did a very good job."
Hays (26-14) took a 1-0 lead in the second when Jason Morriss led off the inning with a walk off Junction City starter Cole Moore and scored on Isaac Garcia's double over the bag at third.
The Generals tied it in the top of the third. Hays starter Chris Larsen walked the No. 9 hitter, Ozzie Troconis, who stole second and went to third on a throwing error by catcher Ben Turner. Troconis scored on Larsen's wild pitch.
The Larks took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the third. Eckerle led off the inning with an infield single, stole second, and scored on Heck's single. Heck also stole second, and scored on a double down the right-field line by Rick Devereaux.
Larsen allowed a single to lead off the fifth, but appeared to be out of the inning when David Drahozal hit a tapper back to the mound with two outs. But Larsen's throw was wild, keeping the inning alive. The next batter, Austin Graham, made Larsen pay, hitting a two-run double to tie the game.
Larsen pitched five innings, allowing three runs -- one earned -- on six hits, with one walk and two strikeouts.
Reliever Grant Gillespie pitched the sixth and seventh to pick up the victory. Gillespie (2-1) allowed two hits, with no walks and one strikeout.
Hays opens play in the NBC World Series at Wichita's Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. against an undetermined opponent.
The Larks tentatively have a tuneup game scheduled for Sunday at 5 p.m. at Larks Park, against Valley Center.