By CONOR NICHOLL
Austin Darby was impressive as a freshman at the University of Nebraska last year. Darby, from Colorado Springs, Colo., hit well in the Cornhuskers' fall season, and then took over in right field late in the spring for a program that finished 35-23.
"Austin has the potential to be one heck of a hitter," Head Coach Darin Erstad said in the team's media guide. "He definitely opened our eyes during the fall and has earned himself early playing time this year."
Darby hit .324, third-best on the squad, in 42 games with 35 starts. He also collected two homers and 15 RBIs and finished 7 of 7 on steal opportunities. Darby earned himself All Big Ten Freshman Team honors.
This summer, Darby has had similar success with the Hays Larks.
Darby carries a .423 average in 28 contests with six homers and a team-high 29 RBIs, heading into Saturday night's contest with Liberal at Larks Park.
With five straight multiple-hit games, Darby leads the team in doubles (12), on-base percentage (.481) and slugging percentage (.712). Only second baseman Zair Koeiman -- .336 average -- is within 107 points of Darby.
"It's great to watch him at the plate," left fielder Jon Ryan said. "You never know what to expect, if it's a bomb or a seed up the middle. He is a great hitter to watch."
The left-handed hitting Darby stands third in the conference in Jayhawk League action with a .408 average and is ranked first in hits. Hays has averaged 6.8 runs a game, the best offensive output in the last six years.
"It's unbelievable, that kid is good," ace right-hander Joey Begel said.
Hays is 21-10 overall, 15-10 in the Jayhawk League entering Saturday's game. Game time is 7 p.m. Heading into the weekend, Dodge City and Liberal were a half-game in front of the Larks in the league standings.
Darby is currently on pace to break the Larks' single season slugging percentage record of .703 set by Kyle Day in 2006. Thirteen players in Larks history have hit .400 for a single season. Mike Brownstein was the last to accomplish the feat with a .411 mark in 2008.
"He is a consistent hitter, hits right-handers and left-handers, plays good defense, can run a little bit, very solid player for us," Larks manager Frank Leo said.
Playing well at home
Thursday's win against front runner Dodge City pushed the Larks to 13-3 at home this season, including eight straight victories dating back to a 5-3 loss to Haysville on June 17.
Since the 2006 season, Hays is 100-36 at home for a 73.5 winning percentage.
"The atmosphere here, everyone just gets amped up to play in front of the Hays fans," Ryan said. "We come out strong and are having fun playing in front of the home crowd."
This season's 81.3 winning percentage is the best since the 2009 team went 22-5 at home for a 81.5 winning percentage. The Larks have nine games left, including seven at home.
"We are starting to play our best baseball and that's where you want to start at the end of the season, you really want to get momentum going into the (National Baseball Congress World Series) tournament, if we are lucky enough to get there," Ryan said. "That's our goal."
Pushing for a league title
The Larks have consistently been among the top Jayhawk League teams, but haven't captured a Jayhawk League title since 2008. This season, the always difficult conference has become even tighter with Dodge City's improvement.
"Tremendous, tremendous league," Leo said. "The west side this year, Dodge City, Liberal and us, we have had very close games against each other. It's going to be a fun race down the stretch. I just hope the NBC does the right thing, all three of us deserve a shot at going to that World Series."
The top two teams earn automatic bids to the NBC World Series in August in Wichita.
"We know we need to push and take second," Begel said.
Last year, Haysville collected its second straight league championship with a 19-12 record. Hays was second at 19-14. El Dorado staggered to the finish, had to forfeit some games and took last with an 11-20 record, a game behind Dodge City. While non-conference records mean little in summer baseball, the league collectively went 45-16-1 in non-conference action (74.0 winning percentage) entering the NBC World Series.
This season, the top five teams have between 16 and 12 wins in league play. Dodge City and Liberal lead at 16-10, with Hays at 15-10.
Entering the weekend, Jayhawk League teams were 20-6 (76 percent) in non-league games. Haysville, El Dorado and Derby are competing in the NBC Regional this weekend in Wichita.
Additions, subtractions, injuries
Infielder Ryan Busboom, a first team All-American for Fort Hays State University this spring, missed his first game of the summer in Thursday's 5-0 win against Dodge City because of an eye infection. Busboom, who carries a .296 average with 15 walks (second-best on the team), became the last Lark to miss a contest this year. He and Koeiman have played in 30 games.
"I think it's day-to-day," Leo said after the victory. "He is not so sure. He saw a doctor. He got some drops going. I will talk to him (Friday) and see if he is making any progress. His vision was a little blurry tonight."
Infielder Nolan Johnson was an early season pickup after shortstop Elvin Rodriguez went down for a few weeks with a thumb fracture. Johnson hit .250 in 11 games with nine starts and has left the team. Rodriguez is back to full strength now. However, without Johnson and utility man Claudio Valencia (season-ending wrist injury) the Larks have little infield depth.
"(Johnson) was under the understanding that he may not be here for the whole summer, so we are thinned out a little bit," Leo said. "Our guys are going to have to grind."
Left-hander Michael Freeman recently went home after he struggled all summer. Freeman was 0-1 with a team-worst 8.31 earned-run average in 13 innings covering seven appearances and four starts.
"He felt like that would be the best thing for him to do," Leo said.
Left-hander Shawn Lewick could rejoin the team for the NBC World Series. Lewick was the ace for Fort Hays this spring and the Larks. In four appearances with Hays, Lewick was 2-0 with a 1.37 earned-run average. The Wichita Wingnuts, an independent league team, signed him in late June, and released him a few days later.
"Tough, tough break for Shawn and hopefully we can get to the World Series and he will be available to pitch there," Leo said. "We are fighting through some adversity."