Hays Larks pitcher Rustin Hays has developed his knuckleball well enough to know the effect the pitch can have on hitters who are not prepared to face it.

“Most of the time I just warmup with straight fastballs,” Hays said. “Then the first batter steps in, and I drop a knuckleball in there. They look back at the dugout, they look back at the umpire, they look back at me, like, what’s going on?"

Hays kept the Liberal Bee Jays’ lineup off balance for most of the night in Friday’s series opener, nearly tossing a complete game in the Larks’ 6-5 victory at Larks Park.

The right hander from Hector, Ark., kept the Bee Jays off the board for the first eight innings. He ran into trouble in the ninth, with Liberal plating five runs and putting the tying run at second base, but Larks reliever Tommy Garcia ended the threat with one pitch, inducing a ground out to first base to end the game.

The Larks improved to 19-4 overall and 6-2 in the Kansas Collegiate League Jayhawk West Division. They hold a one-game lead in the Division over the Bee Jays, who took three out of four from the Larks in last week’s series at Liberal.

Hays, who pitched the last two seasons at Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge, Ark., allowed five runs on nine hits with two strikeouts and two walks in 8 2/3 innings. Outside of the ninth inning, Hays was in cruise control.

“Outstanding,” Larks manager Frank Leo said of Hays’ outing. “His knuckleball has been getting better and better as the summer goes along. I think the warmer weather is making him better. We made the switch to put him in a start tonight. Big game for us, and he responded.”

Hays said he first discovered the knuckleball when he was about 12, but it wasn’t until recently that he made it his main pitch.

“Last summer was when I was like, I’m going to throw it full time instead of just every other pitch, or for an out pitch,” he said. “You know, I don’t have very good (velocity) on my fastball. My curveball is OK; it’s average. My knuckleball, I was gifted to throw the ball with no spin.”

“It’s a tough pitch to hit because it moves so much,” Leo said. “Just ask (Larks’ catcher) Mikey Gangwish how much it moved; he had a tough time with some of those pitches tonight.”

 Hays allowed just four hits heading into ninth. He used groundball double plays to end the fourth and eighth innings.

“I just felt pretty good tonight,” Hays said. “The two-day break that we got was really helpful. It was just good to get those two days off and get rested back up.”

Matt Cavanagh put the Larks on the board in the second inning with a double to score George Sutherland. Sutherland and Jarrod Belbin then had two-out RBI singles off Liberal starter Payton Strambler to push the lead to 3-0 in the third.

The Larks added three crucial insurance runs in the eighth thanks to a three-run double by Wyatt Divis.

“The whole series (in Liberal) we didn’t get those opportunistic hits that we got tonight,” Leo said. “Obviously that last three-spot was well needed. As it turned out, it was big for us.”

After retiring the first batter in the ninth, Hays allowed three straight singles and a walk. After an RBI ground out, Tristan Stacy singled in another run and Jordan Williams delivered a two-run double to cut the Larks lead to a run and put the tying run in scoring position. But Connor Emmet hit a grounder to first base on Garcia’s first pitch for the final out.

The Larks and Bee Jays were set to play the second game of the series on Saturday night.