The Hays Larks won a key Jayhawk League baseball game against the Great Bend Bat Cats by a 6-1 score to take the series Thursday night at Larks Park, but that was the second most important thing to happen at the crowded park.
More importantly, the Larks did their part in the fight against cancer with help from fans and the visiting team.
In years past, the Larks had a “Pink the Park” game. The Larks renamed it the “Stand Up to Cancer” game to align with Major League Baseball’s community program this year.
Frank Leo’s squad donned pink jerseys and auctioned off signed baseballs and a pink bat to raise money.
“We wanted it to have a little more meaning,” Leo said. “Barb (Leo’s wife) kinda kicked it around with me, and we saw this ‘Stand Up to Cancer’ at a Major League game and said, ‘Well, we’re not going to have as big of a crowd, but we have good crowds.’ What a tremendous tribute to cancer survivors, people that fell victim to cancer. I thought it was a very impressive night.”
Before the seventh inning started, the Larks and Bat Cats stretched a line across the infield as each player and coach held a sign up that had the name of a loved one impacted by cancer written on it. Members of the crowd participated as well in what turned out to be a moment of celebration for battles won and an somber reminder of the less fortunate.
Thursday’s game appeared to have a special meaning for everyone in participation, but two Larks appeared to be special cases.
Alex Weiss manned first base and was the Larks’ beverage batter on the night. Weiss was slated to begin his final collegiate season at Fort Hays State University this spring but was diagnosed with testicular cancer the day before the Tigers’ season started.
Surgery followed, but Weiss opted against radiation or chemotherapy treatments after a discussion with Michael Burns, a former Larks teammate who returned from a malignant tumor in his leg to help the Larks in their run to the NBC World Series championship game a year ago.
He could’ve returned for the end of the collegiate season after sitting out six weeks but opted to redshirt in hopes of having a full final season of college ball.
The infielder is aware he’s one of the more fortunate stories.
“I kinda have to remind myself it was a big deal. I just had surgery,” Weiss said.
“I’m just happy to be out here playing.”
For starting pitcher Matt Fish, the game took on a heightened level of importance for a slightly different reason.
Each time Fish takes the mound, it could be his last.
His throwing arm has become bothersome after exhausting his eligibility at Lewis-Clark State College.
“It’s not happy with me,” Fish said. “I’m getting a little older now.”
If Thursday was the last game Fish pitched, he went out on a good one. The lefty started the game with six no-hit innings before giving up a solo homer, the only hit he allowed, in the seventh. He picked up the win with three strikeouts and two walks.
“He’s battling an arm injury, but he knows he’s a senior and every time he goes out there could be his last time on the mound,” Leo said. “He pitches with his heart. It’s pretty indicative of how he did tonight.”
That heart has Fish hoping for another outing before he hangs it up.
“I’m going to push for one more, but yeah, that was potentially the last one that I’ll throw,” Fish said.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better (one), if it is the last day.”
Both Fish and Weiss said that their minds were focused on others that have been less fortunate. The starting pitcher recently lost a close family friend to cancer and had a grandfather battle the disease.
“You gotta do it for other people and not yourself,” Fish said. “I wasn’t really thinking about an arm. I was more thinking about everyone else out there.”
Weiss has lost family members on his mother’s side, and his dad was diagnosed with colon cancer in the weeks after the Lark got his bad news.
“I really like to play and put emphasis on playing for those people that can’t play,” Weiss said.
“There’s a lot far worse conditions than what I had that are having to fight every day.”
Fish opened the game with a 1-2-3 inning capped by Trevor Boone’s sliding grab in right field. In the second, the Larks starter saw a leadoff walk turn into a man on third with one out after a fielder’s choice and a wild pitch. Fish sacrificed a little bit of pain for the second out, as his breaking ball caught a Bat Cat looking for the second out.
“The velo(city) is no longer there,” Fish said. “The curveball hurt every time I threw it.”
He got a groundout to escape the jam and retired Great Bend in order in the third and fourth innings, as a teammate yelled, ‘You’re an animal, Fish,’ from the dugout.
The Larks notched the game’s first hit in the bottom of the fourth but were held scoreless after Johnathan Soberanes and Colin Simpson linked one-out singles.
Hays got on the board in the next inning when shortstop Trey Ochoa dropped a two-run single into shallow center.
A third run scored in the sixth when Simpson doubled and later scored on a sacrifice fly from Boone.
Fish carried his no-hitter through the break before the seventh, as third baseman Jacob Boston made a nice diving play to rob a Great Bend batter of a hit. A solo homer from Jordan Wilkerson followed for Great Bend’s only run of the game.
The Larks starter credited the close family friend and his grandfather for inspiring what could be his final meaningful outing.
“They were the only two I was really thinking about while I was out there,” Fish said.
“They were definitely there helping me today.”
If that was Fish’s finale, the next step according to Leo, could be enlistment in the United States Army.
“He’s got that mental toughness where he’d be a good representative of our country,” Leo said. “He pitched his heart out. He’s pitching on adrenaline and experience right now.”
Soberanes, Simpson and Boone plated runs in the bottom half to extend the lead to 6-1 for reliever Ryan Kotulek.
Kotulek stranded three runners in the eighth before getting a groundout to Weiss at first in the top of the ninth to end the game.
Weiss has primarily played third but isn’t making any demands in his return.
“I still have to ask exactly what to do,” Weiss joked.
“I’m just happy to play. If that gets me at-bats, I’ll gladly do it.”
Weiss singled for a 1 for 4 night at the plate, while Simpson led the team with three hits, two runs scored and an RBI. Boone and Ochoa each drove in a pair.
It was a step in a different direction for an offense that has at times relied on its power.
“A lot of our run production earlier has been with home runs,” Leo said.
“We’re starting to produce runs with hits, and that’s big for us.”
The Larks owned 10 hits to Great Bend’s four.
Thursday, however, baseball was second to a more important cause.
“It’s just pretty fitting. You got a guy like Alex Weiss that battled it this spring, and he survived. He’s one of those Stand Up to Cancer guys that fought back. Now, he’s back on the field. It’s a tribute to that,” Leo said.
“That’s what this is about.”