WICHITA — The Hays Larks had the Kansas Stars down to their final out two different times in the National Baseball Congress World Series semifinals at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The first opportunity to end the game was Friday night; the second, the one the Larks capitalized on, came in the opening minutes of Saturday morning.
Reliever Daniel James got former New York Yankee Jayson Nix to pop out in foul territory to seal the Larks’ 9-6 win in a marathon 17 innings. The Larks were set to play the NBC World Series championship game for the fifth time Saturday.
Larks’ manager and NBC Hall of Famer Frank Leo has seen more than his fair share of games, but the semifinal win over a team full of ex-big leaguers is one that will stick out.
“This one is one to remember. It’s the MLB team, goes 17 innings, play for five-plus hours,” Leo said. “It’s one that’s going to go down for the ages. I’ve had some great moments here at this World Series, and this is right up there with them.”
The Larks and Stars started the 17th inning just before midnight, locked in a 6-6 tie. It had been 13 innings since the Larks had scored.
Designated hitter Mike Mioduszewski returned from illness and led off the 17th with a single and advanced to second when Alex Weiss reached via an error by Nix. It looked as if it had the potential to be a double play ball before Nix mishandled it.
Shortstop Jacob Boston followed and lined a single into left to score Mioduszewski.
“When I went over to Coach Leo, he said ‘I’m going to put it in your hands.’ I liked that,” Boston said. “I wanted to have the game-winning hit.
“He threw a fastball on the inner-half. I hit it, did what I do.”
Weiss and Boston moved up as the throw home skidded past Koyie Hill, the Stars’ catcher. Connor Ross plated a second insurance run on a sacrifice fly to right before a Michael Burns infield single made it 9-6.
Reliever Daniel James returned for his eighth inning of relief in the bottom half. The last time he went that long is a mystery.
“Oh man, high school maybe, maybe even never. I don’t know,” James said early Saturday morning. “I can’t remember.”
What James should long remember is the sequence that followed.
He struck out Brandon Inge and got Adam LaRoche to ground out to Ty Redington at second. James then got Nix to pop out to Boston in foul territory. It ended a long, tense night of relief for the Texas-Arlington pitcher.
“It’s unreal. They step up in the box, and you’re just sitting there thinking to yourself, ‘Man, this guy has been in the league. He can do some damage,’ ” James said. “All it takes is one mistake, and luckily, my stuff was working pretty well and I was able to get out of it.”
The reliever kept the former big leaguers off the board eight different times when a run would’ve ended the game. He allowed just two hits and struck out six, earning the win.
“What can you say about D.J. James. Tremendous job, he left it all out there on the field,” Leo said. “He gave us his heart and soul.”
The Larks got off to a near-perfect start. Burns took Tim Hudson’s first offering for a single and scored when Austin O’Brien pulled a double down the third base line. O’Brien scored the Larks’ second run of the first inning on a two-out single into right from Boston.
Larks’ starter Keegan Curtis got three consecutive groundouts for a quick bottom of the first.
After the Larks stranded two in the second, Curtis struck out Adam LaRoche and J.D. Drew for another 1-2-3 frame in the second.
The Larks created additional separation in the third. Mioduszewski, Weiss and Boston earned consecutive walks to load the bases. Catcher Garrett McKinzie plated Mioduszewski with a soft grounder to first.
Hudson exited after walking Redington to load the bases. Brian Gordon came on for the Stars. After giving up a single to Ross that plated three on an error and an RBI groundout from Burns that plated the sixth run, Gordon settled in.
He got Olinger out to end the third and kept the Larks off the board for the next four frames.
Curtis continued his perfect start in the bottom half, striking out Koyie Hill, Ryan Langerhas and Laynce Nix for another scoreless frame.
“I’m not going to say he shut them down, but he almost shut them down,” Boston said. “He just had command of everything. It was fun to play behind him.”
Pete Orr broke up Curtis’ perfect streak with a leadoff single in the fourth, but the Larks’ got Jack Wilson — a former Lark who went on to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates — to ground into a double play before striking out Inge for the final out. Curtis worked around a LaRoche single to open the fifth to continue his scoreless outing.
That ended in the sixth.
A single, hit batter and walk loaded the bases. Curtis then walked Inge to plate the Stars’ first run. Daulton Leiker then came on in relief.
“It was really good,” Leo said of the Larks’ start to the game. “It got Keegan in the flow of the game. Command hurt us. Walks has been what’s hurting us, as far as letting the other team back into the game.”
Leiker struggled, allowing LaRoche to hit a sacrifice fly before Jayson Nix reached on an error and Drew singled to make it 6-3. Ty Schwaner came on and hit the first batter he faced, Hill, to make it 6-4. He retired the next two batters to preserve the Larks’ lead through six innings.
After pitching a scoreless seventh, Larks reliever Graylon Brown returned for the eighth, but couldn’t finish the inning. Langerhans singled for the Stars’ third of the inning, making it 6-5.
Chad Smith came on and walked Barry Wesson before getting Orr to ground out to second for the final out.
A double play ended the top of the ninth and Smith returned for the bottom half. Smith and the Larks were one out away from advancing to the championship game for the first time, but a two-out double from Jayson Nix tied the game and forced extra innings.
Boston led off the top of the 10th with a double but a crafty pickoff play caught him leaning the wrong way for the first out. McKinzie reached on walk to put the go-ahead run on, but two outs followed to end the top half of the 10th.
James came on for the bottom half and retired the Stars in order. He did so for a second time in the 11th.
James returned for the bottom of the 12th and used a controversial double play to get out of what looked to be a prime scoring opportunity for the Stars.
Inge reached on a dropped third strike to lead off the bottom half and moved up to second on another ball that skipped away from Matt Waller. LaRoche followed and ripped a ball to O’Brien’s feet. The Larks’ first baseman made the play and doubled off Inge, who made his way to third. Inge, and the rest of the Stars, insisted the ball skipped before finding leather, but the umpires stuck with their original call. James then got Jayson Nix to ground out to end the 12th.
Neither side threatened in the 13th, as James retired the Stars in order in his fourth inning of relief.
James allowed the first two Stars to reach in the bottom of the 14th and later intentionally walked LaRoche to load the bases. The Larks’ reliever struck out Jayson Nix to send the game to the 15th inning. The moment, or the details, still hadn’t registered with James afterwards.
“After I got the bases loaded with no outs or one out or something and I got out of it, I’m still jacked up,” James said. “My heart’s still going. I don’t think it hit me yet.”
In the 16th, Burns singled for his fourth hit in eight appearances, but Orr, the Stars centerfielder, gunned down the Larks’ leadoff man, trying to leg out a double.
James returned for the home half and tossed his seventh scoreless inning of relief before picking up the win in the next inning.
Burns went 5-for-9 in the game with one RBI and one run scored. He was named the tournament’s most inspirational player after the game.
“I’m proud of what Michael Burns did,” Leo said. “That’s a special story.”
Boston finished with four hits in seven trips to the plate, driving in two runs and scoring two others. O’Brien and Ross added two-hit games, as the Larks out-hit the Stars 16-11.
“We’ve seen MLB fastballs,” Boston said. “We haven’t seen that caliber of offspeed, though. We just sat of that stuff and hit the fastball.”
Four different Stars tallied two hits in the loss.
The Larks advanced to Saturday’s championship game against the Santa Barbara Forresters. Santa Barbara, in a 12-inning game that started just before 1a.m. today, knocked off the San Diego Force, 7-6.
The Larks might be tired after playing nearly two games in succession, but the potential to win the program’s first NBC World Series should provide enough energy for one more game. At least that’s Leo’s hope.
“They’re probably happy we played 17 innings,” Leo said of the Larks championship opponent. “We used a lot of pitching, but we’ve got adrenaline and should be ready to roll.”
Hays 9, Kansas Stars 6, 17 inn.
Hays 204 000 000 000 000 03 — 9 16 1
Kansas 000 004 011 000 000 00 — 6 11 4
Curtis, Leiker (6th), Schwaner (6th), Brown (7th), Smith (8th) James (10th) and McKinzie, Waller. Hudson, Gordon (3rd), Bell (8th). Tomko (9th), Germano (11th), Marquis (14th) Kohlmeier (17th) and Hill. W — James. L — Kohlmeier. 2B — O’Brien, Boston, Redington (Hays); J. Nix 2 (Kansas).