The series opener between the Hays Larks and Liberal Bee Jays on Friday night was the textbook definition of a pitcher’s duel.
Larks’ starter Alex Lopez won the individual battle with Liberal starter Darin Cook. Lopez picked up his second win of the season with seven shutout innings, scattering five hits in the outing.
Through two starts, Lopez has a pair of wins and is yet to give up a run.
“It feels pretty good right now,” the Texas Wesleyan product said. “Coming back out to Hays is always a great time. It was really good to start off this year with some good games.”
Hays manager Frank Leo has come to expect nothing but quality from the second-year Lark.
“It helps when you’ve seen a guy for a year. It’s a guy you ran out in the championship game of the (NBC) World Series,” Leo said. “That tells you we have confidence in him.”
Lopez retired the Bee Jays in order in the top of the first before the Larks plated the game’s only run.
Catcher Nick Jones ripped a one-out double before Jacob Boston plated him with a single for the game’s only run.
Lopez worked around a two-out single in the second before another 1-2-3 inning in the third. After the Larks stranded two in the bottom half, Lopez had to get himself out of a jam in the fourth.
An error, the only one of the game, put a man on before a single and a walk loaded the bases with two outs. Lopez made one of his better pitches on the night, catching Liberal’s Zac Cook looking on a 3-2 pitch to get out of the inning unharmed.
“He’s an experienced guy that isn’t going to get shook out there,” Leo said. “If he gets himself in a jam, he can step back and make pitches when he needs to.”
Hays second baseman Johnathan Soberanes started a 4-6-3 double play to end the Liberal half of the fifth before the Bee Jays had their best opportunity in the sixth.
Jaron Robinson opened the top of the sixth with a double to the gap before Cale O’Donnell singled, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Lopez got a strikeout before getting he got Bee Jay catcher Garrett Scott to ground into a double play.
“It makes things really easy,” said Lopez of pitching in front of a defense he trusts. “You can just fill up the zone, and you know they’re going to have your back no matter what happens.”
Hays outfielder Trevor Boone smacked a one-out double in the bottom of the sixth but stayed there after a pair of fly outs.
Lopez returned for his final inning in the seventh and sat down the Bee Jays in order, getting a ground out and his sixth and seventh batters.
“Alex was really good,” Leo said. “He made pitches when he had to. That’s a sign of an experienced guy.”
The seventh was the pitcher’s 12th consecutive scoreless inning to open the season. In Friday’s seven innings, he said he rarely used his offspeed pitches.
“Really working the fastball in on both sides of the plate was really good for me tonight,” Lopez said.
Lopez handed it off to Ryan Kotulek for the eighth. After a leadoff single, Boston snagged a liner at short and threw to first for a double play. After playing third and short last year, Boston started the year handling most of the action in right field. With Trey Ochoa gone for the weekend, Leo was comfortable sliding Boston back into one of the most important defensive spots.
“He’s a great utility guy,” Leo said. “He’s a very good athlete. He can handle a lot of spots for us.”
Boston led off the bottom half with a walk and moved to second on a Boone single with one out. That ended Cook’s night after 7.1 innings. The Liberal starter worked around 10 hits and struck out two with a walk. Derek Craft came on and got a fielder’s choice that moved Boston to third for Hays third baseman Alex Weiss. Weiss flared a pitch to right but saw it snagged by the Liberal outfielder.
It was far from the only time the Larks sent hard-hit balls right to Liberal fielders.
“He barreled too hard,” Leo said of Weiss. “We did that several times during the night. I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing.”
Tyler Starks took the mound in a save situation in the ninth. After a lead off single, the Hays closer got Scott to ground out to Larks first baseman Jace Selsor. Selsor was able to step on first and throw to Boston at short, who tagged O’Donnell for the second out of the inning. Starks recorded the save with a called third strike.
The Stephen F. Austin product appears to be in line to hold down the closer role this summer.
“He’s the guy,” Leo said. “He wants the baseball. He’s used to that. He’s a competitor. He’s got the right demeanor for that situation.”
The Larks looked to take the series in Saturday’s Game 2.
Hays 1, Liberal 0
Liberal 000 000 000 — 0 7 0
Hays 100 000 00X — 1 10 1
Lopez, Kotulek (8th), Starks (9th) and Jones. Cook, Craft (8th) and Scott. W — Lopez. L — Cook. S — Starks. 2B — Jones, Boone (Hays); Robinson (Liberal).