“It’s an exciting time of the year,” Leo said. “You work on putting a roster together back in October. Now that we’re a couple days away from getting them all here, it’s very exciting.”
Hays opens the season Friday with a 7 p.m. game against the Denver Cougars at Larks Park. All home games have free admission. Admission Friday is courtesy of Hays Med The University of Kansas Health System. On Saturday, the Larks play host to the Colorado Sox in a 6 p.m. doubleheader, sponsored by Walmart. The four-game, non-league home stand concludes Sunday with a 7 p.m. game against the Sox, sponsored by Taco Shop and Super 8.
As of midweek, Leo had yet to name a starter for the season opener. He plans to team pitch in the four weekend games.
“This weekend, we’re going to look at everybody,” Leo said. “It’s kind of our spring training.”
Leo will be looking to replace his top starter from last year, Alex Lopez, who went 15-3 with a 3.63 earned-run average. Expected to be at the top of the rotation this summer is a couple of pitchers from Colorado School of Mines. Left-hander Walter Pennington, who was 3-2 with a 3.04 ERA for the Larks last summer, finished the spring season at Mines 6-3 with a 6.22 ERA. His teammate, 6-foot-7 right-hander Tyler Blomster, was scheduled to pitch for Hays in 2017 but sat out the summer with shoulder tightness. Blomster went 9-1 with a 3.29 ERA for the Orediggers this spring, with 15 walks and 70 strikeouts in 681/3 innings pitched.
“Those guys have been horses for Mines,” Leo said.
Pennington, who will arrive in town Saturday, enjoyed his time in Hays last summer and is looking forward to another good season. He said during the summer a pitcher can experiment with different pitches in an effort to improve.
“The summer time is when you work on developing yourself as a baseball player,” Pennington said.
Leo said the types of pitchers summer-collegiate teams such as Hays can recruit has changed in recent years. In years past, Leo could bring in top-of-the-rotation starters who pitched on the weekends in college. Now, with college coaches seeking to be more protective of pitchers’ arms, Leo has more younger pitchers on the roster.
“They’re going to be hungry,” Leo said. “They’re going to be out here to prove a point.”
Other pitchers who are candidates for the rotation include left-hander Nick Skeffington, who sat out the spring season after transferring to University of Texas Arlington. Skeffington pitched in the Jayhawk League last summer for Derby, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts. Right-hander Austin Thomason, coming off Tommy John surgery, saw limited action for Angelo State (Texas) University in the spring. Mason Myhre from Pima (Ariz.) Community College is hard-throwing lefty who fanned 39 batters but walked 25 in 271/3 innings while posting a 4.94 ERA this spring. Michael Wong, Myhre’s teammate at Pima, went 2-5 with a 3.77 ERA.
“We’re not going to push our starters,” Leo said. “We want to keep them fresh.”
Leo also will be looking for a new closer this summer. Last year, Tyler Starks saved nine games with a 1.57 ERA. Hutchinson Community College right-hander Wyatt Divis, also a sweet-hitting infielder, could get the call late in games out of the bullpen.
“That’s the key part of the game, those late innings,” Leo said. “We don’t have anybody that’s done that role that’s coming in; we have some guys that are capable.”
Leo has several arms he can mix and match in the bullpen, depending on the situation. Ryan Kolutek, a right-hander from Cisco (Texas) Junior College, returns to Hays this summer. He was 0-2 with a 5.56 ERA for the Larks in 2017. Right-hander Fabian Muniz was 2-2 with one save and a 3.58 ERA for Arizona Western College this spring. Right-hander Sam Slusser and left-hander Toby Scoles both come to Hays from Colorado Mines. Slusser finished 1-5 with a 5.59 ERA, while Scoles went 1-1 with a 5.77 ERA. Carlos Tavera, a right-hander from Texas-Arlington, finished 0-1 with an 8.16 ERA in the spring season.
Two pitchers with local and area ties also are on the roster. Hays left-hander Ryan Ruder was a starter for Fort Hays State University this spring, leading the team in victories and strikeouts. He finished 4-9 with a 7.00 ERA for the Tigers. Leo looks at Ruder as a situational lefty out of the ’pen. Scott City’s Sloan Baker, younger brother of New York Knicks guard Ron Baker, was injured in just his second appearance for Emporia State University this spring.
Last year’s Larks club hit for both power and average. Hays hit .308 as a team and had eight players bat at least .300. Colin Simpson almost won the Triple Crown in the Jayhawk league, batting .415 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs.
“Offensively, I don’t think we’re going to have the power and thunder we had last year; we hit a lot of home runs,” Leo said. “I think we’ll have a lot of team speed this year, a little better contact hitters.”
With a demanding league schedule, Leo prefers to carry three catchers on his roster. Scott Wolverton, like Divis, is from Hutchinson CC. He is a good defensive catcher who batted .278 with a .439 on-base percentage this spring, with two homers and 19 RBIs. Cole Solomon is a switch-hitting catcher who can also play multiple positions. He batted .344 with a .441 OBP, 11 home runs and 35 RBIs for Fort Scott Community College this spring. Easton Kirk, from Wallace State (Ala.) Community College, will make it to town Tuesday due to a family commitment. This spring for Wallace State, Kirk, a left-handed hitter, slugged 10 homers and drove in 52 with a .346 batting average and .449 OBP.
The catalyst in the infield could be Kirk’s teammate at Wallace State, shortstop Kolby Robinson. A leadoff hitter, Robinson hit .360 this spring with a .441 OBP, a homer, 31 RBIs and 52 runs scored. He also won a conference Gold Glove award.
“The key to that infield is going to be Kolby Robinson,” Leo said. “Very good player; excited to have him in there.”
Leo has several other middle infielders to provide depth and flexibility. Eastern Michigan University’s Devin Hager provides excellent defense. He batted .254 with 10 RBIs this spring. Middle infielder Daryl Myers enjoyed a good spring at the plate for Benedictine College. A first-team all-conference selection, the lefty-hitting Myers batted .385 with nine homers, 20 stolen bases and 58 runs scored. Grayson (Texas) College’s Ryne Randle can play both infield and outfield. The lefty-swinging Randle batted .367 with a .462 OBP this spring, with four home runs and 43 RBIs.
There also is depth at the corner infield positions. Jared Martin, a right-handed hitter, started every game at first base as a freshman this spring for Stephen F. Austin University. He batted .284 with five homers and 32 RBIs. Also in the mix at first is John Rensel Jr., Hager’s teammate at Eastern Michigan. The lefty-hitting Rensel batted .242 this spring with two homers and 17 RBIs. Michael Anastasia from New Jersey Institute of Technology is an outfielder who can also play first base. The lefty hitter batted .231 with three homers and 22 RBIs this spring. Wong also can play first base, batting .244 with 18 RBIs for Pima this year.
In addition to coming out of the bullpen, Divis is expected to see action at third base. Divis batted .371 with a .522 on-base percentage this spring for Hutchinson CC, with 16 home runs, 59 RBIs and 60 runs scored. Randle provides depth at the hot corner.
Matt Munoz from Abilene Christian (Texas) University is expected to see time in center field. He batted .316 with four homers and 31 RBIs this spring, with 25 extra-base hits and 46 runs scored. He stole 11 bases in as many tries and hit for the cycle for the Wildcats. Other options include Anastasia and Randle.
Leo has several players to choose from in the corner outfield spots. Martin, Anastasia and Randle all could see time in right.
If he is not picked in next week’s Major League Draft, Clayton Rasbeary will return in left field in 2018 for the Larks after batting .354 with six homers and 35 RBIs last summer. The left-handed hitter, who will be in town next Friday, batted .426 with a .523 OBP for Grayson this spring. He added nine homers and 46 RBIs. Others in the mix include Anastasia, Randle and Martin.
Like Pennington, Rasbeary enjoyed his first summer in Hays last year.
“I think summer ball is the baseball player’s favorite time of the year,” Rasbeary said. “There’s no pressure – you just go out there and play the game.”
There is some pressure to win the Jayhawk League title. The winner receives an automatic berth into the second week of Wichita’s National Baseball Congress World Series in August. It will be the final time the NBC tournament will be played in historic Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which will host baseball for the final time this summer.
Hays, which took third last year, has never won the NBC title. The Larks finished second five times, most recently in 2016. Last year, Hays tied Liberal for first place in the league standings at 30-12 but lost the tiebreaker for first place. Hays, which finished 34-17, also earned a spot into the second week by virtue of finishing second at the World Series the year before.
“The goal of our program is to get to the NBC World Series and highlight our players,” Leo said. “It is a big showcase tournament, something to work for.
“We want to win the Jayhawk League championship,” he added. “That’s the first step in the process.”