By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks manager Frank Leo believed his team played 13 "pretty good" innings in a pair of seven-inning contests in the season opener against the Denver Cougars on Sunday at Larks Park. The solid play led to a 7-2 victory in Game 1. In Game 2, Denver scored 11 runs off starter Jesse Hart and reliever Connor Beer in the third inning. Hays mounted a five-run seventh inning comeback, but lost 11-7.
"Take away one inning," Leo said. "I am still pleased overall with how it went."
The only other drawback came in the third inning of Game 2 when Larks catcher Jay Sanders threw down to second base. The ball bounced and hit Larks second baseman Kelton Rule in the eye. Rule, a Hays High graduate and Fort Hays State University player, left the game. Leo said Hays will "be in a little bit of trouble" if they lose Rule "for any period of time." Hays has only 12 position players.
"He is probably going to have a little hard time seeing (today)," Leo said. "I think it is going to swell up pretty good on him. That's a tough kid. That's a pretty good shot he took. It swelled up in a hurry. Getting ice on it is hopefully going to help. That's something we are going to have to watch. Hopefully it's something that's not going to be serious."
Offensively, Cody Gougler, one of the returners, went 3-for-4 in Game 1 with a home run, double, two RBIs and three runs scored. He finished 4-for-7 in the doubleheader. Catcher Nathan Orf couldn't play this spring after he transferred from University of Illinois-Chicago to Baylor University, but went 3-for-5, reached base six times and homered in the second contest.
"To me, it looks like he hasn't missed a beat," Leo said.
Cam Brown, another returner, homered in the fourth, and Oscar Andino also did in the seventh-inning comeback.
Overall, Hays collected 25 hits against a strong Denver club. It marked the third time in five years the Larks had split a doubleheader with Denver (6-2-2).
"That's good competition there and it shows us in a hurry where we are at," Leo said. "We get to know our guys a little bit and get to see how they perform against a quality team. It's hard telling sometimes against a weak opponent how your guys are going to react."
As usual for the season opener, Leo moved players in and out of the lineup and had multiple pitchers see work. He held three of his top pitchers back, though. Right-hander Jose Gomez, from Pima (Ariz.) Community College, will throw in the 7 p.m. series finale today. Left-hander Kirk Jewasko and right-hander Jorge Guarneros, each from the University of the Incarnate Word (Tex.), won't throw until the league opener against Haysville next weekend. Denver, which has some league games Tuesday, also held several players back, but has a roster that's a little more solidified.
"You could tell that we kind of had a little bit more figured out," Denver general manager Mark Cerullo said. "Because we are used to each other more. Frank is getting his club going, 'Hey, here is what we want to do here.' You could tell there was a little bit of a curve in our favor."
In the first game, Hays scored three runs in the first, two in the second and single runs in the fourth and fifth. Gougler singled and scored in the first, delivered a RBI double and scored in the second and homered in the fifth. Reliever Nick Goza of Eastern Oklahoma University picked up the win in relief. In the second contest, Hart, a former HHS pitcher in his Larks debut, worked around baserunners in the first and second innings.
In the third, Hart allowed the first six runners to reach base on two walks, three singles and a double. Beer, FHSU's top starter in the spring, relieved, but permitted five of the next seven batters to reach. Catcher Michael Allen hit a grand slam to cap the scoring. After the homer, Beer, in his first game since May 7, retired his next seven batters.
"They got on a roll and we couldn't get ahead of hitters," Leo said. "They were swinging pretty free and easy in that inning."
Hays tacked on two runs in the fourth and started to comeback in the seventh. Six of the first seven batters reached, but shortstop Elvin Rodriguez grounded into a game-ending double play.
"I thought our guys did a great job of being down 11-0 and battling back," Leo said. "That shows you a little bit of something. I like what I saw in our ball club this early."