Grant Lung’s time with the Hays Larks was short last year, but it was enough to leave an impression.
After the Larks were decimated by injuries, Lung joined the team at the end of the summer, playing in the league tournament and NBC World Series.
"I got a taste of the Larks’ tradition, and that’s what made me want to come back," Lung said. "I was fortunate enough that coach Frank (Leo) invited me back."
Lung has thrived in his first full summer in Hays, hitting .396 heading into Saturday night’s game.
He delivered the highlight of the season so far in Thursday’s 4-3 win over the Boulder Collegians. With the Larks trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth, Lung knotted up the game with a shot to right field.
"I was hoping he would come (inside); he threw me a slider in and then he threw me that fastball right there, and I just took a hack," Lung said.
"Grant was locked in," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "His parents were here. When it left the bat I knew it had enough juice. I was just wondering if the wind was going to hold it up, and thank God it went to right and not to left because the wind was really holding it up to left field."
Lung, a native of Peoria, Ariz., was enjoying his best season at the University of Sioux Falls before the bulk of his junior campaign was canceled by the pandemic.
"It was tough," Lung said. "But I’m just glad to be playing now. I know a lot of leagues got canceled so I’m fortunate enough to be playing here with these guys. Just lucky to be there.
"Just happy to play baseball at this point."
The Larks were on a five-game winning streak heading into a two-game series with the Colorado Sox.
"I feel like we’re just a strong team overall," Lung said. "Everyone likes each other, we’re tight. It’s just a great team to be a part of and I’m happy I’m here."
Lung helped the Larks wipe away seven innings of frustration at the plate with his homer on Thursday night.
After being held scoreless by Boulder Collegians pitcher Zach Given, the Larks finally got to the lefty in the eighth inning, sparked by Lung’s homer.
Wyatt Divis followed Lung with a double and was brought home by Corbin Truslow’s RBI single for what proved to be the game-winning run.
The Larks survived some tense moments in the ninth after reliever Jacob Ensz walked the first two batters, but Ensz nailed down the win.
"What a fun win," Leo said. "It’s been a tough summer with all the COVID stuff going on. I know our fans enjoyed (Thursday’s game). We wanted to give our fans something this summer, and we sure gave them something tonight."
Given (University of Massachusetts) held the Larks to three hits over the first seven innings. In the eighth, Matt Cavanagh reached on a Collegians’ error to lead off. After retiring the next two hitters, Given surrendered a single to Leo Jiminian to extend the inning and bring Lung to the plate. Following Lung’s blast, Divis then drove a pitch to deep center for a double off Isaac Parks, and Truslow singled up the middle.
"Uncle Mo, he showed up after (the home run)," Lung said. "We took off after that."
"Yogi (Berra) said, ’It ain’t over, til it’s over,’ and that was very indicative tonight," Leo said. "You got to get 27 outs in a nine-inning game, and we got after it thanks to Grant Lung giving us that boost, that energy, that swing."
Lung agreed with Leo that it was fun to provide an entertaining game for the Larks’ fans.
"I love it here," Lung said. "The fans, they get electric. It’s awesome to be a part of, especially a win like that when everyone’s into it and the team’s into it. It’s fun baseball."
Larks starter Landon Schirer went five innings, allowing two runs (one earned). Brady Rose went three innings in relief, giving up one run.
After Ensz walked the first two batters in the ninth, a bunt moved the runners into scoring position. Ensz then struck out Brady Renek, and the Larks intentionally walked Nick Arrivo.
With the bases loaded, Cade Nelson worked the count full, but Fort Hays State’s Ensz got him swinging with a slider.
"He thrives in that position; he’s got a tremendous slider," Leo said of Ensz. "It’s a tough pitch to hit. Got himself in a little bit of a hole with the first two hitters — maybe he was juiced up a little bit too much and was trying to throw fastballs. He got back in the groove with his slider."
Rustin Hays and three relievers combined to keep the Boulder Collegians in check, helping the Larks complete a three-game sweep of Boulder with a 4-1 win on Friday night.
Hays, who bounced back after struggling to find his command in his last start in Colorado, gave up just one run in six innings to earn the win.
"It felt really good," Hays said. "I was kind of (ticked) about the last outing that I had in Colorado. This one, I told myself I was just going to come out and lock it in."
Hays, a knuckleballer who is playing his second straight summer with the Larks, allowed five hits and walked two while striking out five.
"It was good to see Rus come back with a good start," Leo said. "He was determined. He had the ball floating and it was around the plate. When he does that, pretty tough to hit."
Hays turned it over to the bullpen in the seventh inning, and Trey Riggs and Zach Firmature and Trevor Munsch all tossed a scoreless inning apiece in a game that took just an hour and 50 minutes to complete.
"Everybody tonight brought their A game," Hays said. "They wanted to get in, get their work in and call it a night."
Riggs, a Hays High product, worked around a fluke bunt single in the seventh, striking out three in the frame.
"Trey’s pitched with some tough luck; they’ve got some cheap hits off of him and scored some runs off him," Leo said. "I thought he kept his composure today. He’s just got to stay focused.
"I thought Firmature did a real good job. Firm needed a good, clean inning like that to kind of get rolling. It was a good job for our relief staff. We’re going to need it, we’ve got a tough series coming up with the (Colorado) Sox. The guys that threw today threw limited pitches. They’ll all be available tomorrow."
Wyatt Divis put the Larks on the board in the first with a sacrifice fly to score Leo Jiminian. Divis also broke a 1-1 tie with a run-scoring hit in the bottom of the third.
Cameron Pehrson homered for the fourth time in four games, belting a pitch to left field to extend the Larks’ lead to 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth. Cavanagh provided an insurance run with an RBI double in the eighth. Pehrson went 3-for-4 with the homer and two doubles, while Cavanagh also collected three hits.
"That was a big hit to get us up to 4 to 1," Leo said of Cavanagh’s double. "It was a two-strike approach. Some of our guys have to learn how to handle the bat with two strikes and not get too big. Cav’s got the perfect approach."
Saint Louis University’s Buhr — a versatile player who has played infield, outfield and pitched for the Larks — came up with a key defensive play from right field. He threw out a runner trying to stretch a single into a double in the sixth while the Larks were protecting a one-run lead.
"I thought he turned perfectly, did a 180 on that and threw a pea to second base," Leo said. "We’ve seen him on the mound, we know he has a good arm, but you’ve got to be accurate from that distance and he was."
The Larks were set to continue the homestand by facing the Colorado Sox on Saturday and Sunday night at Larks Park. They will be looking to avenge a pair of losses to the Sox from last week’s road trip.
"We let two games slip," Leo said. "They got some decent arms. We’re going to have to keep doing what we’re doing. We got to pitch it good and take advantage of what they give us."