By CONOR NICHOLL
Through the season's first month, opponents have defeated the Hays Larks in odd ways, including a controversial call when Kyle Peterson lost an apparent double for missing first base and an errant throw against Denver that hit the dugout's cement foundation and stayed in play. In multiple games, Hays has allowed runs on bloop hits and soft singles. It had produced an 0-3 record in 1-run games and fourth place in the Jayhawk League.
On Tuesday, Hays had several breaks in its favor, and scored two ninth-inning runs and defeated Liberal 4-3 at Larks Park. Jason Morriss scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch and pushed Hays to 3-2 on a six-game homestand. Greg Bieker, a former Hays High School and Fort Hays State University player, drove in two runs, including a game-tying sacrifice fly, while Andrew Heck provided another terrific start on the mound.
"There is some luck in this game," manager Frank Leo said. "I feel fortunate about that. We have been on the other end of that a lot this summer."
Hays pulled even with Liberal in the conference standings and reached the .500 mark for the first time in league play at 7-7 in the Jayhawk League and 10-8 overall. Liberal dropped to 13-12 and 7-9.
The Larks will complete their homestand today with a 7 p.m. contest against the Bee Jays.
"We got the break on the ball in the dirt (the wild pitch), but these guys deserved a break," Leo said. "They have come close this year. They have lost some close games on luck on the other side and it's about time that we got one and maybe this is the one that will turn the corner. Another great ballgame on both sides' part. It's good to come out on the winning end of that one."
Hays had made close wins its calling card in recent seasons, especially last year when the Larks finished 11-2 in one-run games, including a 10-1 mark in Jayhawk League contests. Last season was Hays' best winning percentage in games decided by one run since 1996.
"Just in baseball in general, it's always nice to get a walk-off win, especially at home," Morriss said. "It's helps the fans out, brings them back for a night and hopefully we can put up a few more runs (today) and get it done a bit earlier."
Liberal nicked Heck, the Larks' best starter this season, for solo homers in the first and fourth inning before Hays tied the game in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs, Morriss singled on an 0-2 pitch over third base. Bieker, seeing his first start after joining the club last week, delivered a RBI double high off the left-center field fence on a 1-2 pitch. Joe Huwer grounded a single up the middle to tie the score against Don Lisi.
"I think I am a little long early in the count and that is something that needs to be adjusted with the wood bat," Bieker said. "But in two strikes, I just try to shorten up and try to look for his best pitch. You don't try to guess, you just try to react to whatever he is going to throw and just stay balanced and try to drive the ball wherever it's pitched."
Liberal took a 3-2 in the fifth on an unearned run. With two outs, Dylan Brown hit an infield popup near the mound.
Larks' third baseman Rafael Valenzuela ran in and dropped the ball, allowing Reid Redman to score. Heck, who worked nine innings in a no-decision in his last start and carries a 2.16 ERA in a team-high 331‚—3 innings, went seven innings Tuesday, permitting two earned runs with seven hits and one walk against five strikeouts. Helped by the ninth inning rally, he finished with a no-decision.
"Andrew Heck, again, pitches an outstanding ballgame," Leo said. "That is two games in a row now that he has not gotten a W. He has pitched his heart out. He is a guy that just never gives up. He keeps competing."
In the ninth, Valenzuela lined a single to center against losing pitcher Bobby Duran and Codi Harshman pinch-ran. Morriss grounded a single up the middle, and when Liberal center fielder Tanner Rindels made an errant throw, Harshman quickly took third and Morriss moved to second.
"Some little things that happened in the ninth inning that don't show up in the scorebook," Leo said. "Codi Harshman taking third. He read the center fielder loafing a little bit and then Jason Morriss reading the overthrow, taking second right away. That doesn't appear in the scorebook as anything big, but it's the little things that we have been talking about all year long. It's the little things that win close games. It's those little things that helped us win."
Bieker, with a two-strike count, followed with a sacrifice fly to deep center that scored Harshman and moved Morriss to third base. After an intentional walk, Duran worked the count to 2-2 against Josh Garcia before he uncorked a wild pitch.
"He was probably going to try to go after him with an off-speed pitch and get the third out," Morriss said. "... Little bit of luck involved, but we will take it at this stage in the season after a few tough losses."
Morriss scored easily for the Larks' first walk-off victory and first close win all season. Chase Barrera (1-0) picked up the victory with a scoreless ninth.
"These guys have been battling so hard and they got a little bit of luck," Leo said. "The game of baseball takes luck."