By CONOR NICHOLL
WICHITA -- In a statistical oddity, the Hays Larks have nearly used as many starting pitchers as relievers through their first five games in the National Baseball Congress World Series. Hays, helped by several terrific pitching performances, has used five starters and six relievers.
The bullpen, often used to throwing every 2 to 3 games, has not seen regular work.
On Tuesday, the Larks defeated the Sedalia (Mo.) Bombers, 6-2, in an elimination game at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and clinched a top-eight finish. For the first time since Friday, though, Hays used a relief pitcher. Larks starter Andrew Heck worked eight innings after Kurt Wunderlich and Patrick Cooper pitched complete games on Saturday and Monday, respectively.
Reliever Chase Barrera closed the Sedalia win with a scoreless ninth inning.
It marked the first appearance in the World Series for Barrera, the Larks' best reliever, statistically, during the regular season with a 3-1 record and 1.84 earned-run average.
"I assess his outing as very good," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "The tough thing about this tournament is your relief guys, particularly with our starters, keep sitting around and have to stay mentally sharp and physically sharp."
Hays, along with Nevada (Mo.), Liberal and the Southern California Bombers, are the lone teams in the NBC to have two complete games. The Larks have a 2.00 team ERA, tied for fourth in the tournament.
Heck ranks second with 16 innings pitched and is tied for first with two victories, while Wunderlich is one of five pitchers to work at least nine innings and not allow a run.
Overall, Hays starters have thrown 382βΡ3 of a possible 45 innings. The Larks had 41βΡ3 of those innings come in the loss to Conejo (Calif.) on Friday when starter Eddie Carl went just 42βΡ3 innings. Carl (5-4) is the probable starter for today's 5 p.m. game against the Crestwood (Ill.) Panthers.
"He had a very disappointing outing in his first one," Leo said. "He wants to have a chance to get back out there and redeem himself, so to speak, and to his teammates. It's an elimination game, so we are going to have to watch and guard him close.
"I think he is going to rise to the occasion (today). Last year, he pitched a big game for us in the tournament when we needed it. He is a veteran guy. He just needs to kick up that intensity level (today) from the get go," Leo added.
The two complete games from Wunderlich and Cooper are one fewer than Hays had in a 41-game regular season.
No pitcher has made more than one relief appearance. Grant Gillespie, a strong middle reliever, has not made an appearance, nor has Travis Lumby. Barrera, a late addition who has the lowest ERA among relievers, pitched in his first game since Aug. 2. He coaxed two popups with a walk and a strikeout.
"Chase's command, everything was down," Leo said. "It wasn't that he was up, down, inside, outside. I thought his command was good. He went 3-2 twice and I thought he kept making quality pitches."
In the sixth inning of the Valley Center-Derby game, a familiar face entered the game for the Twins: former Hays High School and Larks ace Brock Nehls. Nehls had talked with Kellen Mitts, his former roommate at Emporia State University and Derby's current pitching coach.
Nehls, who played in independent league baseball last summer, didn't pitch this year. He pitched for Derby in one non-league game and three times in the World Series. Nehls worked 32βΡ3 innings against Valley Center, permitting two hits and one unearned run with no walks and eight strikeouts. Derby was eliminated with a 4-1 loss and finished in a tie for ninth. Overall, Nehls didn't allow an earned run with 11 strikeouts and no walks in 52βΡ3 innings at the NBC.
"I was supposed to go play pro ball again, but things didn't work out," Nehls said. "They said they needed an arm. I said, 'Yeah. I'll pitch some more.' I had a great time."
Nehls earned all-Western Athletic Conference honors for Hays High in 2004 and finished his career second in the 29-year Frank Leo era for fewest walks per nine innings (1.22). In 2007, Nehls went 6-1 for the Larks and pitched a complete game shutout at the World Series. He was 10-2 for Emporia State in 2008 before he pitched professionally. In the last year, Nehls also served as Barton County Community College's pitching coach and got married on May 30.
"It's been a really fast year, but it's been a really good year," Nehls said with a smile. "I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Ashley Nehls, Brock's wife, will be the head volleyball coach at Emporia High School this fall, and Brock will serve as a full-time elementary school aide. His younger sister, Kamri, would have played volleyball and basketball for Hays High in 2009-10, but Kamri and Brock's parents moved to Manhattan.
"My mom got a job offer that she couldn't turn down," Brock said. "It was easier for my dad to move closer to an airport, anyways."
Host family tragedy
All summer, Gillespie stayed with Luke and Julisa Haines in a house north of Yocemento. On Friday afternoon, the log cabin-style home burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was inside. Gillespie, 2-1 with a 3.58 ERA in 14 appearances, has talked with his host parents.
"He hasn't physically seen his host family," Leo said. "Grant's doing fine. He has been talking to his host family. An unfortunate situation. The game of baseball becomes pretty small."
3 Jayhawk teams left
The final eight teams have been set after Tuesday's play finished about 2 a.m. today. The squads include three Jayhawk League teams: conference champion El Dorado, Liberal and Hays. El Dorado and Liberal are the lone teams without a loss and will meet in the winner's bracket final at 7:30 tonight. Valley Center, the Walter Johnson champs in its first year of existence, rounds out the Kansas schools. The other four teams are: Conejo (Calif.), Crestwood, defending champion Santa Barbara (Calif.) and Anchorage (Alaska) Glacier Pilots.