Hays Larks manager Frank Leo was the only member of the team to participate in last year’s NBC World Series in Wichita, and that rare occurance didn’t sit right with some of his returning players.
Leo was on hand as he was inducted into the NBC Hall of Fame after more than 30 years with the local summer team, while the rest of the team watched from afar.
Inconsistent performances and a rash of injuries saw the Larks miss the tournament for just the second time in the last 25 years in 2015.
“We were kinda on and off,” second-year Lark Garrett McKinzie said. “At the end of the season, you kinda felt like you let Coach Leo down, especially because Coach Leo got inducted last year too.”
After a blistering hot 17-2 start through Friday, including a 13-2 mark in league play, the Larks are on the verge of clinching a return trip to Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, as the Jayhawk League will send the teams with the best record in June and July instead of the top two teams at the end of the season for the first time.
The Larks entered Saturday night’s game against Derby with a 3.5-game lead over second place Dodge City with only five games to play before July 1. Hays could have its berth locked up before the Larks and A’s begin a month-ending series Tuesday.
Players and coaches struggled to come up with one clear reason for the difference. There might be a little more talent, injuries have not be as big of a factor to this point, team chemistry appears to be a strength, but most important to Leo is the team’s ability to take games that could go either way.
“Part of it is health, but we’re winning close games,” Leo said. “If you’re going to win in this league, you better win close games. If you have a chance to win, you better win ‘em. We’ve been doing that, and we’re going to keep trying to do it a few more days.”
The Larks players can’t figure out who to credit the strong start to.
“I know one of the differences for us, we’ve had a lot of pitchers go a lot later into games,” McKinzie said. “They’ve really came out and dominated for us, and our bullpen has been able to pick us up very well.”
Augie Gallardo, the ace of the Larks’ staff a year ago, feels like the team’s lineup has shouldered the load.
“I think we have better hitting this year,” Gallardo said. “I think last year, if we had healthier pitching, I think we would’ve been fine. That kinda hindered us. This year everyone is staying healthy, then our hitters are just unreal.”
The talent is there. Austin O’Brien and Mike Mioduszewski are both hitting north of .430 and and also lead the team in RBI with 18 and 23.
“They’re really leading us and really helping us put runs on the board,” McKinzie said. “They’re doing a lot of the work for us. I know the rest of us will get there, but those two are on fire right now.”
On the mound, Gallardo and D.J.Carr have paced the rotation, carrying sub-2 earned run averages. Carr pitched a gem in Friday’s win, tossing eight innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts. Only one of the runs was earned. New Mexico’s Chad Smith came on for the ninth and picked up his fifth save of the summer.
“They’re shutting other teams out, which is great,” McKinzie said of the Larks’ arms.
Leo didn’t go about assembling this team any differently than he did a year ago.
“Every year, you got back to the same schools,” Leo said. “If they don’t have what you want, you go to others. We’ve got a nice contact group that we can go after. I’m pleased. Coaches know the type of players we want. We want players are going to come in the park and play hard every day. That’s what these guys have been doing.”
One thing that everyone can agree on is that this team came together much quicker than last year’s squad. The Larks sat at 8-7 through 15 league games a year ago.
“Early in the year, you can see (it),” Leo said. “They come out to games early.
“They get along well. They kid each other in a good way. They’ve come together, and that’s a fun thing to watch.”
“Our chemistry has been very good this year,” McKinzie added. “We meshed very quickly on the bus rides. It’s a lot of fun. We got a lot of guys participating in bus games and stuff like that. We’ve got a lot of guys that have really bought in.”
“We’re really cohesive. We hang out a lot,” Gallardo said.
“It’s just a little different from last year. Last year, guys were together, but it was a little bit separate.”
Gallardo, an Eastern Michigan product, recalled an early season game against Liberal when the Larks first showed signs of becoming a tight knit unit. Oklahoma Sooner Austin O’Brien made a nice play at first, and from that point on, the Larks showered him with praise from that point forward.
“If he touched the ball, we were cheering for him,” Gallardo explained. “It could’ve been a routine ground ball to short. We’re cheering that O’Brien caught the ball at first.”
The good times continued through Friday night’s 3-2 win at Larks Park over Derby. Despite the Larks and Twins playing a tight game, pitcher Alex Lopez was spotted dancing back to the dugout to Sam & Dave’s classic ‘Soul Man’ after doling out high fives to teammates on their way back to the dugout.
“He’s just that guy. It’s just how he is. He’s singing, he’s dancing,” Gallardo said. “Guys are just happy and have good energy.”
The Larks are now a couple of wins away from being able to preserve valuable energy through the month of July before the world series begins at the end of the month.
Making the national tournament has become an expectation for the program.
“We want to be at the NBC every year,” Leo said. “It’s a showcase, we’ve done well down there and it’s something we want to continue to be able to do.”
Failing to reach Wichita a year ago seemed like something of a let down to one of the Larks’ catchers.
“We get here, and Coach Leo talks to us about the legacy of being a Lark,” McKinzie said. “The Larks have this tradition of winning and success.”
Despite strong showings at the tournament, the Larks’ best finish in the NBC is a second-place finish. There’s no telling if the Larks will be able to match some of the prior results, but there only a couple games away from making a team trip to Wichita.
“It’s a talented team,” Leo said. “The big thing is they play well together. They have a lot of fun. They’ve only been together for a short time. They just gotta enjoy that and keep believing in each other and try to make this something special.”