By CONOR NICHOLL
Cody Gougler described his performance in Tuesday's three-run loss to Liberal as "really, really rough." Gougler went 0-for-2 and committed two errors. The Larks lost their third straight and fifth in seven games. A night later, Gougler wore a big smile after Hays defeated Liberal, 5-4, on Wednesday at Larks Park.
"It feels like we have just started a complete, brand new season," Gougler said. "We have got everything put behind us. Now we just need to keep the momentum going."
The Larks improved to 1-5 this summer against the Bee Jays, the defending Jayhawk League and NBC World Series champions. Hays moved to 16-10 overall, 10-9 in the Jayhawk League. Liberal, the league leader, dropped to 23-8, 13-7.
Andy Lewton (3-1) permitted one run in 51βΡ3 innings before Tory Doerr and Matt Schmit bridged the game to closer Michael Burchett. Burchett got the save, striking out Liberal's Greg McCall with runners on second and third to end the game.
"It put a smile back on the faces, and we haven't seen a lot of smiles, and a belief now that we can win," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "We played to win tonight. We didn't play to lose and we competed. This ball club, the first two weeks of the summer, was a very, very good ball club, and (Tuesday) night we talked about getting back to where we were the first two weeks, and hopefully this is a stepping stone."
Offensively, Hays, with a new lineup, tallied four runs in the fifth inning against Liberal ace left-hander Josh Smith. Many of the key at-bats came with two strikes, including a bases-loaded walk to Gougler. Playing in front of his parents for the first time in his two-year Larks career, Gougler battled back from an 0-2 hole.
"After the first two pitches, you kind of step back and you take a deep breath and you try to not listen about anything that's being said and you just say, 'OK, I worked myself into this hole, I have been here before, just relax,' Gougler said.
After the walk, designated hitter Sloan Soulia struck out, but forced Smith to throw 11 pitches.
"Mentally, (Soulia) wore that guy down," Leo said.
Aaron Cornell followed with an RBI single on a 1-2 pitch. Cam Brown finished the rally when he lined an 0-2 pitch up the middle for a two-run single. Brown, who had been 0-for-15 against Liberal this summer, finished 2-for-3 with a walk.
"Hays' hitters have struggled with two strikes every time we have played them so far this year," Liberal manager Mike Silva said. "They did a great job battling. They kept on fighting and fighting and fighting. They got a good pitch, they did something with it. I told (Smith) ... I thought he pitched a great game."
For Gougler, the night produced a big turnaround from Tuesday's game. His parents, Duane and Tina, spread the 12-hour trip from Huntsville, Texas, over two days. They arrived in time to go sight-seeing around Hays on Wednesday.
"It's a special place, and I am really glad that they are getting to experience it right now," Gougler said.
At the game, Gougler's parents saw a different lineup around their son. Leo has normally batted Elvin Rodriguez at the bottom of the order and had Cornell hit leadoff. Against Smith, Leo went with an all right-handed lineup, moved Sean Wilson to the top of the lineup, batted Rodriguez second and dropped Cornell down to fifth. He wanted Wilson (.417 average against lefties) and Rodriguez (.364 versus lefties) higher in the order. But he kept Gougler (team-high .480 against lefties) in his usual third slot.
The move paid off in the first inning when Gougler hit a single that scored Wilson. In the fifth, hits by Kelton Rule and Tito Andino and a walk from Rodriguez paved the way for Gougler's walk, Hays' rally and a critical victory.
"We were more focused on the situation rather than the individual situation," Gougler said. "A lot of the times it's easy to go up there with two strikes and nobody on and to have a bad at-bat. But when you know that the game is on the line, that focus really, really zeroes in on the pitch and the pitcher. I think that concentration was really why we were able to get things done and ultimately what won the game for us."