WICHITA — The Hays Larks are moving on to bracket play in the first week of the National Baseball Congress World Series after going 1-1 in pool play and winning the pool on the tiebreaker.
The Larks opened NBC play with a 4-0 win over the Waco Missions on Saturday before dropping a 5-4 decision to the Great Bend Bat Cats on Sunday at Eck Stadium.
Waco then notched a 7-5 victory over Great Bend on Monday to put all three teams in the pool at 1-1.
The Larks advanced out of the pool by virtue of the run-differential tiebreaker, sitting at plus 3 runs over the two games. Great Bend also advanced (minus 1 run) while Waco lost the tiebreaker with a minus 2-run differential.
Hays will play Tuesday in the single-elimination bracket tournament of the first week of the NBC.
Nick Goza's outing on Saturday may have provided a sense of deja vu for longtime Hays Larks fans in attendance for Hays’ NBC opener.
Larks followers may remember Goza as a standout pitcher for Hays for parts of four summers from 2011-2015.
With the short-handed Larks in need of reinforcements, Goza jumped at the opportunity to help out, joining the Larks for the NBC World Series.
He showed off the same skills that made him a popular Lark, tossing seven scoreless innings to help Hays notch a 4-0 win over the Waco Missions in the pool-play opener of the first week of the NBC.
“It was [Larks pitching coach Keith Harper] who called me. I was in Detroit just about to start dental school; orientation is August 12th,” Goza said. “I thought this was a good opportunity to play some ball one more time. It’s great to be with the Larks again.
"It feels great to be called upon by the coaches here. I'm happy to have that opportunity."
Goza, who had recently been playing in Arizona in a recreational summer league, held the Missions to four hits and didn't surrender a walk while striking out six.
“He’s got great off-speed stuff and he complements it with a good 80’s fastball, moves the ball around the plate and doesn’t give them much to hit,” Larks manager Frank Leo said. “That’s vintage Nick Goza. People that saw him pitch for us four or five years ago, they saw that (style of pitching) then, and they saw it again today.”
Ryan Ruder tossed a scoreless eighth inning and new acquisition Chris Rodriguez followed suit in the ninth to close it out.
George Sutherland put the Larks on the board in the bottom of the first with a two-run single. Grant Lung made it 3-0 with a single in the fourth and Jimmy DeLeon added another RBI single in the sixth.
"Today, I just wanted to get ahead and give our team a chance to win," said Goza, a Delta State product. "With the offense giving me an early lead, they made things easy for me."
DeLeon and Lung each had two hits for the Larks, who finished with six hits.
"We were opportunistic a little bit, but I thought we should have cashed in more and made a bigger spread," Leo said. "There were some at-bats with one out and a runner in scoring position, I thought we had a chance to break it open. But I've seen that before in the first game of the World Series, guys are trying to get their feet wet and get acclimated to the atmosphere."
On Sunday, Great Bend’s Chase Gibson broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth with a two-out double.
Jarrod Belbin led off the bottom of the ninth with a triple for the Larks and was brought home on a sacrifice fly from Griffin Everitt. But the next two Larks’ batters were retired to end the game.
Drew Marrufo took the loss for the Larks. Starter Rustin Hays went four innings, giving up three runs (two earned) on five hits with a walk and four strikeouts.
Great Bend scored two runs in the top of the third before Hays grabbed the lead with three runs in the bottom of the fourth after a bases-loaded three-run double from Belbin. Great Bend tied it at 3 in the fifth on a double from Dawson Pomeroy.
The Larks outhit the Bat Cats 10-7. Belbin went 3 for 4 at the plate with two doubles and a triple.
This year brought a change of venue for the NBC World Series, with Eck Stadium hosting the Series after Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, the site of the Series for 84 years, was torn down. The new stadium being built in downtown Wichita is expected to be ready next year.
While Eck Stadium doesn’t bring the same nostalgia as Lawrence-Dumont, Leo said he enjoys the venue.
“This is a fantastic facility,” Leo said. “I can go back to the year 2000, when we lost our first game in the NBC — at that time it was a double-elimination tournament and they played a lot of games at this ballpark. We had to win seven in a row to get to the championship game, and five of those came in this ballpark. It’s a great venue, a great place to play.”
The Larks brought back Carlos Tavera, who pitched for the Larks last year, and also picked up Rodriguez from the Boulder Collegians to add more pitching depth.
“We have fortified the bullpen; we actually have a bullpen now, and coach Harper’s liking that,” Leo said.
Leo, whose Larks have battled injuries all summer long, said he feels better about the state of the roster than he did at the end of the KCLB Tournament.
“We had to get some depth and get stronger at some positions,” Leo said. “We lost Justin Lee — one of our leading hitters — to wisdom teeth at the end of the KCLB Tournament. And Drake Angeron went out the first game (of the KCLB tourney) with a bad hamstring pull, so we were down to two outfielders. We had no bench in that tournament, and the guys really played well. We had guys out of position in that tournament who did a great job.
“We needed to strengthen some things up, I feel like we did that and made ourselves stronger.”