By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays Larks manager Frank Leo gave credit to a pitching staff that worked around jams and stranded 11 baserunners. He also was pleased with an offense that has hit better with men on base throughout the summer, including against a rare opponent Monday night.
"I think all of our pitchers tonight made pitches when they had to," Leo said. "(Offensively), you have to put the ball in play. That is what we have been doing a better job of here in this stretch drive."
On the other side, Midnight Sun (Alaska) Goldpanners manager Jim Dietz simply looked at the scoreboard. He saw four errors for his team, none for Hays. Two of the miscues led to Larks runs.
"The errors are what beat us tonight," Dietz said. "If we make those plays, we win."
The combination of Hays' clutch play and Alaska's defense helped Hays (24-14) gain a 6-5 non-league victory on a soggy Monday night at Larks Park. Hays moved to 8-1 in non-conference games, pushed its winning streak to five contests, one off the summer's best, and won its 13th home game in its last 14 chances.
The Goldpanners, a tradition-rich club based in Fairbanks, Alaska, played their 20th road game in 21 days, going 12-8 in that span. Alaska started the trip with seven straight wins but now has lost four in a row.
"We were doing really well and then we have had some injuries, so we were playing shorthanded," Dietz said.
Alaska has barnstormed throughout Canada and the United States, including stops in Montana, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, to celebrate the team's 50th year of existence and 75th year of the National Baseball Congress World Series, a tournament the Goldpanners won four times in the 1970s. Alaska will finish its tour Sunday when it play the opening game at the NBC World Series at Wichita's Lawrence Dumont Stadium.
"It was very common in the '60s and '70s to play our way to Wichita," Alaska general manager Don Dennis said. "So just kind of getting back into the barnstorming roots, which have died."
Rain kept the Larks from having their usual large crowd, but the Hays booster club had a festive look, including a beer stand that morphed into an igloo and fake snow that fell intermittently on the bleachers throughout the game.
Leo called the game a "nice atmosphere."
"They welcomed the team very well," Leo said. "It was nice to have a tradition-rich program right here in our backyard. We are a tradition-rich program, but they are from a way different part of the country, and to be in here to play us, I thought that was a nice thing to do."
Hays, which took a break from its grueling Jayhawk League schedule, rested multiple regulars and started left-hander Kenny Toves, who had posted a 5.40 earned-run average and a 16/12 strikeout to walk rate in 16 2/3 innings. Toves continued his mix of wildness and brilliance with four no-hit innings that included four strikeouts, four walks and a hit batter.
"He has got better than average velocity and he has got a decent breaking pitch when he throws it right," Leo said. "He settled in and did a nice job. We wanted him to give us four innings, and that is what he did."
In the first inning, Toves loaded the bases with nobody out on a hit batter and two walks. After a meeting from pitching coach Keith Harper, Toves retired the next three batters and allowed one run -- the first of several innings Hays pitchers worked around baserunners.
"Kenny has good stuff, when he can trust himself," Leo said. "His mechanics were off and Coach Harper had to get him straightened out a little bit, but when he puts his mechanics together, he is pretty tough."
Alaska didn't have a hit until the sixth when the Goldpanners collected three, including a three-run homer from Travis Andersen against Larks reliever Grant Gillespie for a 4-2 lead. However, Larks' right-hander Andy Lewton (1-1) worked scoreless seventh and eighth innings and left four runners on base.
Hays tied the game at 3 in the sixth on an RBI double from Rick Devereaux against Alaska starter Thomas Hoeshnell. Hoeshnell had fallen in the dugout Sunday and Dietz said the right-hander was scheduled to have x-rays today to look for a possible chip. Hoeshnell entered Monday with a 1.12 ERA.
"He just gutted it out with nothing," Dietz said. "He didn't have a fastball. It's not his fault. He just knew that he had to go because we didn't have any other starters. If he couldn't go, we were going to have to throw outfielders."
Hays tied the game at four in the seventh on a Ben Turner walk and an error by second baseman Eric Lane. Hays leadoff hitter Sean Wilson hit a ground ball to Lane that bounced off his body and skittered into center field.
"We kind of gave it to them," Dietz said.
In the eighth, Hays scored two runs. The Larks started the inning with three consecutive hits, including a run-scoring single from Devereaux. After a sacrifice bunt, Jason Morriss scored on a passed ball by losing pitcher Carey Schwartz for a 6-4 lead.
Leo was pleased that Hays put the ball in play all game, including the eighth inning. The Larks had one strikeout with a man on -- a trend that has helped Hays go 13-4 after an 11-10 start. In the first 21 games, Hays averaged 5.06 runs a contest. In the last 17, that's jumped to six runs a game.
"Instead of striking out with men in scoring position, we are starting to make better contact, and when you make contact, anything can happen," Leo said.
Kyle Peterson pitched the ninth for a save, Peterson, who has thrown just 10 1/3 innings all season and started the game at third base, allowed a run on two singles, a walk and a hit batter. With the bases loaded and two out, Peterson struck out Mykal Stokes on a 2-2 pitch. Stokes tried to check his swing but couldn't hold up.
"Several guys needed to get some work tonight and that was the plan for Peterson to close it," Leo said. "He kind of did what Toves did in the first inning, lost his command a little bit and got himself back in a corner, but I think all of our pitchers tonight made pitches when they had to."
Hays returns to Jayhawk League action tonight at 7 against last-place Dodge City at Larks Park. The Larks, second in the Jayhawk standings, are 16-13 in league play, a half-game in front of Liberal and a game in front of Derby.