By CONOR NICHOLL
From 2007-09, Andrew Heck emerged as the best two-way player in the 30-year Frank Leo era for the Hays Larks. Heck collected a 14-1 record and was the staff ace for two summers. At the plate, Heck batted .291 with six homers last season. In spring ball, Heck set several school records and earned first team all-conference honors for Duquesne (Pa.) University.
However, Duquesne folded its program after the 2010 season and Heck, considered a pro prospect, had to go elsewhere. Heck eventually landed at Oklahoma State University, where he had a frustrating season. Heck finished 3-1 with a 4.74 earned run average and batted .214 in 28 at-bats this spring. He wasn't among the six Cowboys drafted.
"Things didn't go the way I had hoped," Heck said.
Heck talked with Leo throughout the summer and decided to come to Hays for a fourth summer to help the Larks on the stretch run and possibly earn himself a free agent professional contract.
On Monday, Heck made his Larks' pitching debut and took the loss in an 8-4 defeat to Dodge City at Larks Park. Heck, a little rusty, suffered his first loss for Hays since the 2008 NBC World Series. He worked five innings and allowed five runs (four earned) on 10 hits with three strikeouts and zero walks.
"He doesn't have that crispness that we are going to see out of him before this summer is over," Leo said.
An improved Dodge City club moved to 18-19 overall, 11-17 in league play. Hays dropped to second in the league standings, but the top-four teams are within percentage points of each other. The Larks stand at 23-13 overall, 15-11 in Jayhawk play. The Larks' .576 conference winning percentage ranks second behind Haysville's .586. Liberal is third at .571, while Derby is fourth at .551. Hays travels to Liberal tonight for a two-game series.
"They can beat anybody on a given night," Leo said of Dodge City. "That's just the way the whole Jayhawk League is."
Dodge City had few hard hit balls, including a fourth inning triple by Stephen Castiglione that scored two runs, but constantly found holes with bloops, ground balls and soft liners. Overall, the A's had 16 hits, 13 singles. The A's scored two in the fourth and three in the fifth off Heck. They also scored once in the sixth and twice in the eighth.
"Frustrated," Heck said. "The triple was hit hard. There were a few other balls hit pretty well, but there definitely were a lot of balls that were just hit in the right spots off of some decent pitches that I threw. There were some fat pitches that I threw, and sometimes when they are missing those fat pitches, you think you are having a good night. Because if they are not hitting the fat pitches, you think they are not going to hit the good pitches that you throw either. But that wasn't the case tonight. They hit some pretty good pitches."
Offensively, the Larks scored three times in the first inning with two runs coming off a first pitch homer from catcher Sloan Soulia. Past that, Dodge City starter Andrew Bailey and reliever C.J. Bula worked around jams all game. Hays had 12 hits, but left 10 on base.
"Missed opportunities," Leo said. "We had opportunities early in that ball game to get a spread. We have seen the Bula kid before, he is pretty good. You give him a four-run lead, it's going to be hard to play catch up against him. We shouldn't have put ourselves in that kind of position."
Heck wasn't looking to be in the position of still playing college baseball. For the Major League Baseball draft in June, Heck filled out some papers for teams, but wasn't picked up. He went home to Pittsburgh and mainly played outfield and infield.
When Larks' starter Jorge Guarneros went down with a season-ending injury, Leo asked Heck if he wanted to come to Hays. Leo said Heck will have at least one more regular season start and would start in the National Baseball Congress World Series if Hays qualifies.
"Didn't have much going on, doesn't do much good to be sitting around at home," Heck said. "I should go out and play baseball. Just been trying to do what I can to maybe get a free agent deal."