A summer to remember for Hays Larks
By Randy Gonzales
August 13, 2018
HAYS – The season did not end the way Hays Larks manager Frank Leo wanted, but that did not take away from a summer to remember for fans, players and coaches.
The Larks came up short in their bid for their first championship at the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, but the Larks still finished 35-12 and won their 10th Jayhawk League crown.
“We had a great season, great bunch of guys,” Leo said.
Hays returned just three players from the 2017 club, but they bonded quickly, from the very first game.
“I remember the first game; Devin Hager had a walk-off hit,” Leo said. “That maybe set the tone for the summer. It was fun to see guys that knew each other just two days run out to celebrate.”
Leo will begin the recruiting process for the 2019 season starting the middle of next month, when he will contact players off this year’s team to see if they want to come back. The final decision is up to the college coaches.
“I tell (the players) if they enjoyed their time in Hays and want to come back, tell your coach that,” Leo said.
After touching base with this summer’s players Leo will look to fill in spots on the roster by reaching out to his vast network of college contacts.
“That helps a bunch, having veteran guys back, but this year what helped is we just had a bunch of guys that got along well together,” Leo said. “They just clicked.”
This year’s team added to the Larks record book. Third baseman/DH Wyatt Divis broke the program record for on-base percentage at .507; the old record was .505, set by George Williams in 1990. Divis also walked 49 times, good for third on the all-time list. One of the team’s closers, Divis also finished 11th in earned-run average at 1.17 for the season.
Catcher/DH Easton Kirk, who led the Jayhawk League in hitting, finished at .410 to place ninth on the team’s hitting chart. Kirk also had a .650 slugging percentage for fifth place on the all-time list. Kirk also joined Divis on the all-time OBP list at .500 to finish in a tie for third.
Outfielder-infielder Ryne Randle finished tied for ninth all-time in doubles with 17. Right-hander Tyler Blomster walked 0.91 batters per nine innings for third all-time in the Larks record book.
Hays also finished 21-4 at home this season, with a 10-game winning streak at Larks Park.
“The atmosphere that is created at our ballpark, the players take their game up another level,” Leo said. “There’s no other atmosphere like it in the league.”
Leo marveled at the changes off the field in recent years. All Larks’ game have been livestreamed the last two years; the team’s website has been updated; the presence on social media has increased; and the Larks introduced a team song this summer. Add that to the support of local businesses and the enthusiasm of the fans, and Leo thinks Hays and the Larks have a common bond.
The Larks have a youth baseball camp. The program also designates games each summer to honor former Larks and Larkstoberfest; the military; first responders; cancer survivors; educators; little leaguers and Father’s Day; a canned goods night to stock a local assistance center; McKids Day; and host families are recognized. There is free admission to home games thanks to sponsors.
“Those are the off-the-field things that help a program keep taking steps that make an awesome all-around program,” Leo said. “There are things we are doing now off the field, things we do in the community with the players that build a program, that gains a reputation.
“You can’t do all that unless you get good community support,” he added. “You get players that come in here and buy in; this is a community thing and we’ve got to give back to the community.”
Leo, who just finished his 36th season as the Larks’ skipper, was packing things away last week. One of these years, he knows it will be time to let someone else take over. But not next year; he still has the passion to spend another summer in the sun.
“I have that desire,” Leo said. “I see the crowds when we play, the enjoyment this program is bringing to Hays. I want to continue to do that.
“This program isn’t just a baseball team,” he added. “It’s a program that’s part of the community.”
Schwartzbauer was there for birth of ‘Larks Magic’
By Randy Gonzales
August 10, 2018
HAYS – Dan Schwartzbauer was there when “Larks Magic” was born.
Schwartzbauer was the shortstop for the Hays Larks on their 2001, 2002 and 2003 teams. The 2001 club won the Jayhawk League for their first time, and the Larks repeated as champions the next two seasons. The 2001 Larks made it to the National Baseball Congress World Series title game before falling to Anchorage, Alaska, a team they had beaten earlier in the tournament.
The summer of 2001 started it all, when pitching, defense and timely hitting – a winning formula manager Frank Leo still uses today – carried the Larks to success. That club rallied time after time for come-from-behind victories that became known as “Larks Magic.”
“We had some wonderful teams,” Schwartzbauer said. “We didn’t really have any superstars. We just had awesome pitching, great defense, timely hitting; we knew how to win.
“I think that’s where ‘Larks Magic’ came into play,” he added. “I forget how many come-from-behind wins we had that year.”
Leo, who completed his 36th season as the Larks’ manager this summer, said Hays fans got a taste of “Larks Magic” at the 1995 NBC World Series. Led by slugging first baseman Lance Berkman, Hays had a wild ride all the way to the title game, where the Larks lost to Team USA, the United States Olympic team. Then came the magical run that started in 2001 and continued on to this season, with the Larks winning their 10th Jayhawk league crown.
“I think that really was the springboard,” Leo said. “When you talk about ‘Larks Magic’ that really started with Danny’s bunch.”
Schwartzbauer, a Pittsburgh native, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates after his playing days with the Larks. He played in the team’s minor league system starting in 2004 until he retired at the All-Star break in 2007. After baseball, a friend helped Schwartzbauer land a sales job in the orthopedic implant industry. Schwartzbauer remains in the field today back home in Pittsburgh; he started his own successful orthopedic implant company in 2015.
Now married with three children, Schwartzbauer, 36, does not get back to Hays as often as he used to, when he visited his host family, TK and Kelli Karlin and their three children, Kaycee, Ross and Aubree. He did return for the 70th reunion of Larks baseball in 2016. Schwartzbauer still fondly remembers his days in a Larks uniform.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was a great town. I liked it enough I went back to visit my host family, the Karlins, on multiple occasions.”
Schwartzbauer also has a part of Hays and the Larks program through two of his children. He and wife Audrey have a 7-year-old daughter, Ella; a 5-year-old son, Luke; and a three-year-old daughter, Delanie. His son’s middle name is Hayes and his younger daughter’s middle name is Larke. That’s “Hayes Larke” for those of you scoring at home.
Schwartzbauer has a season ticket package to watch the Pirates, and he helps coach his son’s youth team.
“My son is obsessed with baseball,” Schwartzbauer said.
If son is like father, he will be a scrappy shortstop who makes all the plays; that’s what Schwartzbauer did for the Larks for three summers.
“I think I was probably best known for my glove,” Schwartzbauer said. “I was expected to catch everything and make all the plays. I think I played the game right.”
Leo agreed with that assessment.
“He was a true Lark; he believed in Larks baseball,” Leo said. “He came out here every summer and gave his all.
“Dan was a great all-around player; his defense was always good,” he added. “You don’t have to be a power hitter to help the team win. He helped us win in many different ways.”
Schwartzbauer said those teams he was on had a good core of players; he still keeps in touch with many of them. Once a Lark, always a Lark.
“I’d be lying if there wasn’t a little bit of a sense of pride to think maybe it was the start of a stronger tradition,” Schwartzbauer said of those winning Larks clubs from the early 2000s. “I know there’s a strong tradition that goes back a long time. Maybe we gave that tradition a little bit of a bump, maybe set the expectations a little bit higher.”
A busy man with a busy life, Schwartzbauer does not keep up with the Larks as closely as he used to these days, but when he hears of a come-from-behind victory he surely lets out a little smile.
Just more “Larks Magic.”
Larks seek elusive NBC World Series crown
By Randy Gonzales
August 2, 2018
HAYS – Pitching, defense and timely hitting will win you a lot of games. That formula carried the Hays Larks to the Jayhawk League title this summer, and manager Frank Leo is counting on it again during the National Baseball Congress World Series.
“Defense and pitching are going to keep you in a ton of games,” said Leo, in his 36th season as the Larks’ manager. “We’ve got a pretty good offense to go with it.”
Hays opens play in championship week of the 84th annual tournament 7 p.m. Friday against the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s at Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Win or lose, Hays will play again on Sunday. The Larks have never won the NBC finale, finishing second five times. Hays finished 34-10 overall and 26-9 in the Jayhawk League this summer to win the program’s 10th Jayhawk title.
“You want to win the national title,” Leo said. “Each year, I want this club to be competitive. I think we’ve been doing that.”
Clarinda (23-26) is the only team with a losing record in the Larks’ pool. The San Diego Stars are 26-6 and the Wellington Heat finished the regular season at 40-9. The Stars and Heat play each other at 1 p.m. Friday. The top two teams advance to the single-elimination round.
“It’s a tough field down there, but we got the type of ball club that we just need to go down there and compete,” Leo said. “Down there, one bad inning can cost you; we’ve got to try to avoid that.”
Right-hander Tyler Blomster, who led the league in strikeouts, will get the start on Friday. Blomster, 4-2 with a 3.59 earned-run average, has allowed 43 hits in 42 2/3 innings, with five walks and 58 strikeouts. Right-hander Michael Wong (4-0, 1.80 ERA) is the probable starter for the second game. Wong, who led the league in ERA, has eight walks and 40 strikeouts in 45 innings, with 36 hits allowed. The starter for the Larks’ third game depends on the situation. If needed, right-hander Fabian Muniz (5-1, 1.81) could get the start. Muniz, who also has three saves, has pitched 44 2/3 innings, giving up 39 hits, with 12 walks and 41 strikeouts.
“You win your first two games, you put yourself in pretty good position,” Leo said.
Left-hander Walter Pennington (2-0, 4.09 with one save) and right-hander Austin Thomason (1-2, 5.46 with one save) could either start or relieve, and right-hander Carlos Tavera (4-0, 5.74) is coming off a good outing in his last start. Pennington has World Series experience, getting a key win in last year’s tournament. Left-hander Mason Myhre (3-2, 4.73) is working his way back from a sore elbow. Depending on his arm strength, he could start or work out of the bullpen. Long relievers will be left-hander Ryan Ruder (1-1, 6.23) and right-hander Sloan Baker (0-0, 8.04).
“We go pretty deep,” Leo said. “We’ve got some guys who are going to make our bullpen stronger.”
Hays added to its bullpen depth for the World Series, picking up Ruskin Hays, a right-handed knuckleballer who pitched for El Dorado during the regular season. Hays was 1-0 with a 1.47 ERA in league games, with 21 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings. He allowed 19 hits and walked six.
“It’s a different look,” Leo said. “He’s a knuckleball guy who throws strikes. It’s another good weapon to have.”
The Larks have two right-handed closers in Shane Browning and Wyatt Divis, and left-hander Toby Scoles (3-0, 2.02, with one save) has been effective in middle relief. Right-hander Sam Slusser (1-1, 3.79) also could be used there. Browning (3-0, 0.57) has three saves in nine games after joining the team in midseason. In 15 2/3 innings, Browning has allowed 11 hits, with three walks and 24 strikeouts. Divis (3-0, 0.65) has one save in 11 appearances. Divis has walked 11 and struck out 38 in 27 2/3 innings, allowing 20 hits.
“They both love to compete,” Leo said of his two closers. “Their poise is fantastic on the mound.”
Hays also has a lineup that is tough on opposing pitchers. The Larks hit .309 as a team, led by Easton Kirk, who won the Jayhawk League batting title with a .407 average. Kirk, a catcher and designated hitter, batted .404 overall, with six homers (three grand slams) and a team-high 42 RBIs. Leadoff man Ryne Randle is hitting .386 and leads the Larks in doubles (16) and stolen bases (15). The Larks outfielder takes an 18-game hitting streak into the World Series; he’s batting .420 in that span.
Infielder Daryl Myers – who is the son of former major league pitcher Mike Myers — leads Hays with seven homers (three in one game), with 30 RBIs and is batting .343 for the season. Divis, a third baseman and DH, is hitting .336 with one homer and 28 RBIs. Outfielder Matt Munoz is at .328 with six home runs and 33 RBIs. Shortstop R.J. Williams, who joined the team July 10, is batting .315 with one homer and 13 RBIs in 11 games.
Outfielder Clayton Rasbeary, who like Pennington was with the Larks last year, is batting .314 with three homers and 30 RBIs. Rasbeary won the team’s Home Run Derby on Monday and will represent the Larks in the NBC Home Run Derby. First baseman John Rensel Jr. is hitting .307 with five home runs and 37 RBIs.
Outfielder-infielder Jacob Boston, who joined the team late in the season, will be playing in his third World Series; he made the all-tournament team the last two years. Boston is hitting .284 with one homer and 13 RBIs. Switch-hitter Cole Solomon, a catcher-third baseman, is batting .273 with a homer and 13 runs batted in. Slick-fielding infielder Devin Hager is hitting .267 with 15 RBIs and catcher Scott Wolverton is batting .175 with a homer and seven RBIs. Catcher Nic Gaddis joined the club late in the season and is batting .292 with four RBIs in six games.
“This is a very good hitting ball club; hitting is contagious,” Leo said. “That’s a tough lineup, one through nine.
“There are a lot of left-handers, but we do have some right-handers we can mix in there. We have several left-handers that handle left-on-left pretty good.”
The Larks have been pretty good, year in and year out, at the World Series. They just haven’t been quite good enough to win it all, despite coming close more than once. Hays finished third last year.
“There’s no doubt we’d like to win one for the program – not for me, for the program,” Leo said. “I’d be ecstatic to make it happen. Would it change anything? No. We’re still going to have to regroup next year, see what kind of product we can put on the field.”
The players are ready to try to win that elusive crown.
“We’re really excited,” Rensel said. “We won a lot of games, one of the best teams I’ve been a part of. We’re really excited to get down to Wichita and make a run for the World Series.”
Boston, who has had back-to-back strong World Series performances, wants that title, too.
“Hopefully, we go there and perform like we have been,” he said, “and win a national championship.”
By the numbers
San Diego Stars
Larks entertain fans with Home Run Derby
By Randy Gonzales
July 30, 2018
HAYS – The Hays Larks held their first-ever Home Run Derby for their fans Monday night at Larks Park.
After Mason Myhre won the pitchers’ homer-hitting contest, with Michael Wong taking second, Clayton Rasbeary won the position players’ contest, with Easton Kirk the runner-up. Rasbeary will represent the Larks in the Home Run Derby at the NBC World Series.
“Wind blowing out, put the aluminum (bats) back in their hands – we hit some bombs,” Hays manager Frank Leo said. “Clayton Rasbeary put on a show; Easton Kirk wasn’t far behind him. I know they all had fun doing it.”
Having fun, bringing players together to form a team, is something Leo, now in his 38th year as the team’s manager, has to figure out every summer. On Monday, the players were relaxed, enjoying the time off after winning the program’s 10th Jayhawk League championship. The title earned the Larks a berth into championship week at the NBC World Series in Wichita. Hays will play Clarinda, Iowa, 7 p.m. Friday at Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
In the regular season’s final week, the Larks showed the camaraderie the team has developed. After selling raffle tickets during a game, pitcher Austin Thomason jumped on the back of fellow pitcher Michael Wong as he ran in front of the grandstand. Thomason was waving his hand to the fans, trying to get them excited.
“Michael Wong is our horse,” Leo said. “He’s carried guys on his back several times this year – not in the stands. That’s the first time I saw that.”
Later in that same game, Wyatt Divis, who had been close to hitting a homer all season but still without one, finally hit a round-tripper. Per baseball tradition, sometimes teammates in the dugout will ignore a player after a homer, then pummel him in a group celebration. That was the case after Divis hit his home run.
“I knew that was coming because Wyatt’s been trying to get a home run all year long; he’s come close,” Leo said. “That’s these guys. They love each other. They become brothers; they become friends.”
Leo was happy the team could put on a show in front of the home fans one final time; the regular-season finale last week was rained out. There were about a couple hundred fans in the stands Monday – not for a game, but a homer-hitting contest.
“Our fan support has been fantastic all year long,” Leo said. “You have 500-plus people every night – that’s pretty awesome.
“To come out to a Home Run Derby after the season’s over, see another two or three hundred people out there, what more can you ask? The fans got to see us one more time.”
Kirk wins batting title; other Larks among league leaders
By Randy Gonzales
July 26, 2018
HAYS – Not only did the Hays Larks win the Jayhawk League championship in 2018, the program also produced the summer collegiate league’s batting champion for the second year in a row.
Catcher/DH Easton Kirk won the Jayhawk League batting title with a .407 average in league games. Last year, Colin Simpson also won the batting title as part of a Triple Crown season. In 2017, Simpson hit .451 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs.
Larks leadoff man Ryne Randle, who is on an 18-game hitting streak, tied for second in the batting race, hitting .364 in league games.
“Those two were consistent all summer long,” Larks manager Frank Leo said. “Randle, with an 18-game hitting streak, speaks for itself. For the most part, he’s a pretty tough out.
“Easton Kirk, not only good batting average but hits with some pop, drives in a lot of runs for us,” Leo added. “Two lefties that seem to handle that left-handed pitching pretty good.”
Kirk, along with teammates Daryl Myers and John Rensel, hit five homers in league play to finish in a five-way tie for second. Kirk and Rensel also finished league games with 28 RBIs, one behind the Jayhawk leader. Matt Munoz added 26 RBIS for Hays to finish fourth among the leaders.
Hays led the league in hitting for much of the summer before finishing second with a team batting average of .296, but the Larks did lead in on-base percentage at .401 and in slugging at .440. The Larks also were first in runs scored with 275 and were second in the league in home runs with 30.
“It’s a tough lineup, one through nine,” Leo said. “You can’t (pitch around) somebody because there’s somebody on the on-deck circle just as good. I’ve said it many times this summer, one of the reasons why we were consistent was because of the depth we had up and down the lineup.”
The Larks also were deep on the mound. Right-hander Tyler Blomster led the league in strikeouts with 57 and right-hander Michael Wong was the earned-run average leader at 1.95 in league contests. Right-hander Fabian Muniz finished third in ERA at 2.52, while left-hander Walter Pennington was fifth at 3.66 and Blomster was seventh at 3.89 in league games. Muniz and Blomster’s four league victories put them in a five-way tie for second. Right-handed closers Shane Browning and Wyatt Divis each had three saves to tie them for third in the league.
“Anytime you have starters that can take you deep in the game takes a little burden off your relief corps,” Leo said. “We have a good relief corps; our top two guys there, Divis and Browning, they’ve both been very good.”
Hays led the league in team ERA by a wide margin. The Larks’ ERA of 3.38 was almost two runs better than Dodge City’s 5.38 in league games.
“It was a good pitching staff,” Leo said. “When you play five days in a row, sometimes six, you’ve got to rely on more than three guys. We’ve been able to do that and have a successful year.”
Randle extends hitting streak
By Randy Gonzales
July 23, 2018
HAYS – Hays Larks leadoff hitter Ryne Randle is as hot as the July sun.
Randle extended his hitting streak to 17 games in Hays’14-2 win over the Liberal BeeJays Monday night at Larks Park.
“The confidence is really high right now, but you don’t want it to get too high, which is what I’m trying to tell myself every day,” Randle said. “Tomorrow, I might strike out four times.”
Keeping things even keel helps, Larks manager Frank Leo said.
“He stays calm; he doesn’t ever press,” Leo said. “If he has a bad at-bat, he doesn’t take it to the next one. That’s pretty important for hitters if you’re going to stay in a groove.”
Randle, a left-handed hitter who is batting .421 during the streak, started the season batting second. When shortstop R.J. Williams joined the team, Leo settled on a lineup with Randle batting leadoff, followed by the right-handed hitting Williams.
“You got a right-hander in there, breaking up all our lefties,” Leo said. “He’s done a great job in that leadoff spot for us.”
Randle went 3-for-5 on Monday, his third straight multi-hit game and eighth during the streak. The Larks outfielder also has had times when his streak was in jeopardy; he had a four-game stretch and a three-game span where he had just one hit in a game.
“I got a couple cheap ones the other day,” Randle said. “It was like I could get a multi-hit game (again).”
Randle, who has hit in 20 of his last 21 games, has the same mindset no matter where he is in the lineup.
“Just keep the same approach; I like to swing at the first pitch, if it’s a strike, which I’ve still been doing,” Randle said.
Randle said he feels little pressure to keep the streak going because there has been scant publicity about it. He keeps track of it on his own.
“We don’t have mass media coverage, Joe DiMaggio or anything,” Randle said with a grin, “but I definitely keep up with it in my head.”
Streak or no streak, Randle is the same player, Leo said.
“He’s a very low-key guy,” Leo said, “who comes to the park every day ready to play.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Gary and Deb Weatherbee with Larks first baseman John Rensel.
Host family program important part of Larks’ success
By Randy Gonzales
July 23, 2018
HAYS – Manager Frank Leo believes there would be no Hays Larks program without host families for the players.
“It is a tremendous part of our organization,” Leo said. “We would not have this program – I don’t care if we had all the money in the world – if we would not have homes to put these players in. I can’t say enough times thank you to those people for what they do.”
To show the program’s appreciation, the host families were honored before Monday’s game. They gathered on the Larks Park infield with their players, wearing specially made red Larks shirts for the occasion.
“It was a nice tribute tonight, to see that sea of red,” Leo said.
Leo, in his 36th season as Larks manager, remembered that back in the 1980s some Larks players were housed in apartments and a few others were in families’ homes. Around 1990, the host family program became the norm.
“I’ve got to give my wife credit for setting that up,” Leo said. “It’s not an easy job; she works very hard at getting players placed.”
Gary and Deb Weatherbee were one of the first host families, and now, 28 summers later, they are still hosting a Larks player.
“Gary and I, we’ve never had a bad one,” Deb Weatherbee said after posing for a photo with their player this summer, first baseman John Rensel. “We’ve always had fabulous kids.”
Rensel is a first-year Lark whose hometown is in Ohio and who played college ball in Michigan.
“I heard about the town and the tradition,” Rensel said. “I was really excited, but at first it was a little weird, just because it wasn’t my house. You just wanted to be comfortable with it.”
The Weatherbees made Rensel feel right at home.
“Deb and Gary did a really great job making me feel comfortable,” Rensel said. “I came halfway across the country … it was a new world for me.”
Helping Rensel make the decision to play for the Larks was knowing he had college teammates who liked playing in Hays, as well as his head coach at Eastern Michigan University, Eric Roof. Rensel is glad about his choice to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s been a really awesome experience,” Rensel said. “Coach Leo really loves us being with host families – gets us involved in the community.”
Leo said he is looking for the right fit when he recruits players for the Larks program.
“It is kind of scary bringing a college kid you don’t know into your home,” he said. “Part of my recruiting process is to find good kids, both on and off the field. I ask players on our team, ‘Who would be a good fit here?’ That helps.”
The players settle into a routine with their host families. Because the players have odd hours, Deb Weatherbee said she asks players what they like to eat, then stocks the refrigerator so the players can make their own meals.
“Most of the time, they’re not home,” she said. “They sleep ’til noon, they get up, they eat, come to the park.”
Gary Weatherbee said an added benefit is that since he and his wife travel a lot with their grown children now gone, the players look after the house while they’re gone. In the beginning, it was because they had young children that they decided to become a host family.
“When our kids were at home, it was something we thought would be enjoyable for them,” he said. “Once our kids grew up and left the house, it just seemed like the thing to do. We had an empty house and all the room in the world.”
As the 2018 season winds to a close, the players will soon be gone. The host families’ homes might seem a little more empty. But the memories will remain.
Larks honor third-year player Boston
By Randy Gonzales
July 23, 2018
HAYS – Not many Larks spend three summers with the local summer collegiate baseball team. Jacob Boston is one of those players.
Boston, an infielder-outfielder, was honored for his three years of service before Monday’s game at Larks Park. After host families were honored on the infield, they all gathered around the pitcher’s mound, where Larks manager Frank Leo gave Boston a framed photo of him in a Larks uniform from all three seasons. Announcer Ken Windholz read off the highlights of Boston’s three summers in Hays, with players and fans alike applauding several times during the ceremony.
“I was definitely caught by surprise,” Boston said while pausing from taking photos with his host family, Daryl Gregg and Robin Hale. “I knew I was a veteran here, but I didn’t know I was going to be honored like that.”
Leo said Windholz and his wife, Jolene, have taken it upon themselves to do something special for longtime Larks.
“It’s a nice tribute,” Leo said. “For a player to come back to a summer league team three years in a row, that says something about the experience they’ve had.”
Boston said honoring a player like him reflects on the Larks program.
“It just shows a lot about the place here and the people that run it,” Boston said, “just the gratitude for these players.”
Boston, who finished his senior season with Angelo State (Texas) University this spring, was hoping to catch on with a professional team when the Larks called at midseason, looking for right-handed bat.
“Baseball always has been my passion; I love the game,” Boston said.
Monday night, Boston learned first-hand about the passion Hays has for its Larks.
Larks clinch Jayhawk crown despite defeat
By Randy Gonzales
July 21, 2018
HAYS – Either a Hays win or a Dodge City loss Saturday night would clinch the Jayhawk League title for the Larks. Hays lost 7-4 to the Great Bend Bat Cats at Larks Park but Dodge City dropped its second game of a doubleheader to El Dorado, 11-2. As a result, Hays won its 10th Jayhawk crown in program history.
“We were hoping to get it done tonight …” before a large home crowd, Hays manager Frank Leo said. “I guess it just wasn’t in the cards tonight.”
The Larks had an uncharacteristic off night against the Bat Cats. The defense made four errors and the batters did not come up with the key hit in the late innings as Hays dropped to 32-9 overall, 24-8 Jayhawk. The loss snapped a 10-game home winning streak for the Larks. Hays, 20-4 at home for the year, last lost at Larks Park on June 25, against Dodge City.
Starter Fabian Muniz (5-1) took the loss, giving up seven runs, three earned, in seven-plus innings. Muniz surrendered four runs in the fourth as the Bat Cats capitalized on ground-ball hits, two errors and a lost fly ball in the outfield.
“Score of that game is not very indicative of how he pitched,” Leo said. “He’s a ground-ball guy, got some ground-ball base hits off him.”
Great Bend added three runs in the top of the seventh, knocking out Muniz after three singles and a double, plus an error. Right-hander Sam Slusser finished up with two scoreless innings, allowing Leo to avoid using either of his two closers, Shane Browning or Wyatt Divis.
“I thought Sam Slusser did a great job of keeping us in that ball game without going to a Divis or Browning, our two main guys out there we need to have in a close game, try to win,” Leo said. “Sam did a very good job getting out of a jam and giving us a chance to win that ball game.”
Meanwhile, the Larks’ hitters couldn’t solve Great Bend starter Daniel Hegarty; it was their first look at the Bat Cat left-hander. Hegarty allowed one run over the first seven innings before the Larks got to him in the eighth on Easton Kirk’s two-run homer, his sixth of the season. The Larks added another run in the inning off reliever Marco Gutierrez, on Clayton Rasbeary’s RBI single.
Hays tried to rally in its final at-bat against Great Bend reliever Johnathan Parry. The right-hander sandwiched two walks around a flyout to start the Hays ninth, bringing up Kirk, the Larks’ RBI leader on the season. Kirk popped out to second on a pitch Leo said the lefty slugger just missed.
“You can’t expect to hit a home run every time up,” Leo said. “He hit a home run to give us a charge, get us going. Nine times out of 10, I like him in that situation.”
Parry then got Jacob Boston on a popup to first for the final out and earn a save.
Hegarty allowed 10 hits in seven-plus innings for the victory, giving up three runs, with two walks and one strikeout.
“He threw strikes; he didn’t walk people,” Leo said. “Everything was going in his favor tonight.”
Leadoff man Ryne Randle drove in the Larks’ first run of the game with an RBI single in the second inning. Randle also singled to start the game, extending his hitting streak to 16 games; he is hitting .408 during that span.
Hays and Great Bend were scheduled to play again Sunday in Great Bend. Hays then finishes the regular season with a three-game series against Liberal, starting Monday at Larks Park.
Larks outlast Twins in 16 innings
By Randy Gonzales
July 15, 2018
HAYS – The Hays Larks got a taste of postseason play in Sunday night’s Jayhawk League game against the Derby Twins. It took four hours, 18 minutes and 16 innings for the Larks to outlast the Twins 3-2 at Larks Park. The winning run scored on a double error by the Derby shortstop.
“It was one of those where you knew it was going to have to be something like that to end this ball game,” Larks manager Frank Leo said. “Both teams played their hearts out. Great defense on both sides. Both sides pitched it well.”
Leo said it was the type of game the Larks will face at next month’s National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita.
“Teams at the NBC are going to be good,” he said. “You’re going to have close games; you’re going to have pitchers’ duels. You’ve got to figure out a way to score that extra run.”
Hays (30-7) improved to 22-6 in the Jayhawk and gained a half-game in the league race, now leading second-place Liberal by five games after the BeeJays were rained out on Sunday.
“I’m just glad we got away with a (win),” Leo said.
Leo went with one of his top starters, right-hander Tyler Blomster, for seven innings. He then stuck with his top two relievers, pitching Wyatt Divis six innings and Shane Browning the final three innings. They normally are not extended that long by Leo, but the Larks manager said both pitchers were starters in college and could handle the extra use.
Browning, who got the victory to improve to 3-0, said he could go a few more innings.
“I was willing to give all I could,” he said.
Browning, counted on by Leo to be one of the Larks’ closers, likes his role in the bullpen this summer.
“I love it: I’ve never really been a closer,” Browning said. “It’s fun. You get to go out there in tight games, try to work your way out of it. I like the intensity.”
Browning was sitting by the phone this summer hoping to catch on with an independent league team after his senior season at Angelo State (Texas) University this spring. With no offer coming, Browning asked Austin Thomason, a teammate in college and a pitcher this summer for the Larks, if they needed any pitching help. Leo called the next day and Browning was on his way to Hays. He pitched for the Larks in 2016, going 3-1 with a 2.77 earned-run average against Jayhawk opponents, and planned to pitch for Hays again last summer before suffering an injury in the spring.
“We’ve got a really good staff, a lot of guys who can come in and throw strikes with good stuff,” Browning said. “Control and movement, can’t beat it.”
Blomster used his excellent control and good stuff against Derby. He scattered seven hits, with one walk and 11 strikeouts. He gave up both of his runs in the fourth, on a leadoff homer by Derby center fielder Michael Urquidi, and a two-out RBI single by right fielder Aaron Beaulaurier.
Hays got within a run in the fifth on shortstop R.J. Williams’ RBI single. The Larks, who had trouble making solid contact against Derby starter Connor Dove’s splitter, scored the tying run in the seventh off Twins reliever Zach Smith. Matt Munoz singled with one out and used daring baserunning to get into scoring position. Ryne Randle hit a fly ball to deep right-center that was caught by Urquidi. Munoz tagged up at first and his headfirst slide barely beat Urquidi’s throw to the infield. Williams followed with a single to right to make it a 2-2 ball game.
“Matt’s play probably doesn’t come up big in the newspaper or the scorebook,” Leo said. “R.J.’s hit was big, but Matt’s play got us into extra innings.”
If not for a couple dazzling plays by Urquidi in center, Larks’ fans could have made it home a little earlier. The Derby center fielder made a diving catch over his head to rob Munoz of extra bases with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth. In the 15th inning, the Larks put runners on first and second with two outs when Daryl Myers’ ball to shallow center was caught by Urquidi after a headlong dive.
“The kid in center field made great plays all night long,” Leo said.
Browning and Urquidi were teammate at Angelo State this past spring.
“Had an old teammate from school, kept making diving plays,” Browning said. “How many of these are we going to hit hard before it works out?”
Divis held Derby (20-16, 15-14) at bay in his six innings, keeping the Larks in it until they finally won. Divis allowed the leadoff batter on base in each of the first five innings he pitched but got the outs when he needed them.
“Wyatt had to make some big pitches in key situations,” Leo said.
Derby threatened in the 11th, putting runners on the corners with one out. The Twins tried a squeeze bunt, but Divis fielded the ball and tossed it to catcher Nic Gaddis, who tagged out Toren Criag attempting to score from third. Divis then issued a walk to load the bases but escaped the jam by getting a fly ball to center.
Hays finally ended it in the 16th. Munoz singled with one out against Ian Fisher, Derby’s side-arming right-hander. Randle coaxed a walk to put runners on first and second for Williams. Fisher got a grounder to shortstop, but Craig mishandled the grounder for his first error, then made a hurried throw that sailed over the head of first baseman Marques Paige for another error, allowing Munoz to score the winning run.
After an off day Monday, the Larks return to Jayhawk League action on Tuesday with a three-game series at the Haysville Aviators. Right-hander Carlos Tavera (3-0, 6.53) is Tuesday’s probable starter. Hays ends the regular season at home, with a game against the Great Bend Bat Cats on Saturday followed by three games against Liberal next week. The Larks are seeking their 10th Jayhawk League crown.
“We’re just going to go to the next game and get a ‘w’,” Leo said. “We can’t think of how many more, what we need to do. What we need to do is win the next game and keep thinking that.”
Hitting – and defense, too — lifts Larks past A’s
By Randy Gonzales
July 11, 2018
HAYS – The Hays Larks pounded out 17 hits in a 17-2 Jayhawk League win over Dodge City Wednesday night at Larks Park. Perhaps lost by some – but not by manager Frank Leo — was the outstanding defense by the Larks.
Leo, in his 36th season as the Larks manager, has used a formula of pitching, defense and timely hitting to win more than 1,000 games with the local summer collegiate team.
“Pitching and defense will win you a lot of ball games,” Leo said. “I know the fans come to the park to see the offense.”
Against the A’s, the Larks turned three double plays, including a pair of smooth twin killings by the team’s new shortstop, R.J. Williams, and second baseman Devin Hager.
Hager also turned in three sparkling defensive plays, twice ranging into the hole between second and first to rob Dodge City batters of hits. Then he gloved a bouncer up the middle, turned and fired for the out at first. In Tuesday night’s nonleague game against the Colorado Cyclones, Hager was at third base when he made a fine play with two runners on to end the game, a 10-6 Larks win.
“What a glove he has,” Leo said. “Third base (Tuesday) night, he makes a barehand play on a chopper, last out of the game. Put him at second base tonight, he makes plays all over the field. He’s a magician with the glove, a very good asset for us to have.”
Hager, a sophomore this past spring at Eastern Michigan University, is in his first year with the Larks. He arrived in Hays with a reputation as a fine fielder, whether it be at third, second or short.
“I make sure I can help the team whatever position I’m playing that night,” Hager said. “I know the rest of the team does a good job as well.”
As for those highlight-reel plays, it’s all a matter of positioning.
“I try to anticipate a little bit,” Hager said. “Based off the count, whether the hitter’s a righty or lefty, I kind of position myself to be in the best position to make a play.”
Leo said the Larks’ pitchers can tip their caps to Hager’s defensive gems.
“I know the pitchers love him,” Leo said. “When a ball gets in his area, they know he’s going to make a great play.”
The beneficiary Wednesday night was right-hander Fabian Muniz, who worked six solid innings to improve to 5-0 on the season. Muniz allowed two runs on six hits, with one walk and four strikeouts.
“I doubt if he threw a ball above the knees tonight; that’s Fabian,” Leo said. “He pitches down, low in the zone, going to get a lot of ground balls.”
Muniz also was aided by a big first inning from the Larks hitters. Hays struck for five runs, with all the damage coming after A’s left-hander Brady Rodriguez got the first two outs of the inning. Rodriguez entered the game with a 4-0 record and had beaten the Larks earlier in the summer. He took the loss, getting knocked out after two innings.
“I wasn’t expecting that to happen in the first inning,” Leo said. “Putting up a five-spot – particularly after the first two guys are out – five runs against a pretty good pitcher, that’s an encouraging sign.”
Jacob Boston started the scoring with an RBI double, followed by run-scoring singles from John Rensel, Matt Munoz and Cole Solomon. Another run scored on an error.
Hays added two runs in the fourth, two more in the sixth and six in the seventh, capped by Munoz’s three-run homer to right field, his sixth of the year. The Larks tacked on two more runs in the eighth.
Munoz finished the game with three hits and four RBIs. After a slow start at the plate this summer, the Hays center fielder pushed his average to .330, with 28 RBIs.
“I feel like I’m seeing the ball pretty well,” said Munoz, a junior at Abilene Christian (Texas) University this past spring. “The beginning of the summer I was still trying to figure out my swing because it’s my first season with a wood bat; I haven’t been really accustomed to it. I feel like I’m getting a good hang of it.”
Wyatt Divis added three hits, two runs scored and two RBIs, and Solomon hit three singles with three runs scored and an RBI. Williams singled and doubled, with three runs and two RBIs.
Hays improved to 27-6 overall and 19-5 in the Jayhawk League to maintain a four-game lead over second-place Liberal (16-10 Jayhawk). Dodge City (15-11, 13-11) dropped to six games behind the league leaders. Hays took the season series from Dodge City, four games to two.
After an off day Thursday, Hays opens a four-game series with the Derby Twins (15-11 Jayhawk) at Larks Park. Following a 7 p.m. game Friday, the teams will play a 5 p.m. doubleheader Saturday and another single game Sunday.
“The first game in the series is huge, kind of sets the tone,” Leo said. “We talked about what we need to do down the stretch. Our philosophy is win that game and go to the next one.”
The Larks’ probable starter for Friday’s series opener is right-hander Michael Wong, who is 3-0 with a 1.67 earned-run average.
“Michael’s a guy who gives us a chance to win every time he takes the mound,” Leo said.
Larks lead the pack midway through season
By Randy Gonzales
July 6, 2018
HAYS – The Hays Larks enjoyed a day off Thursday after playing six straight days. Hays won all six of those games and takes a seven-game winning streak into Friday night’s series opener in El Dorado against the Broncos. Just past the halfway point in the Jayhawk League race, the Larks (22-5 overall, 16-4 Jayhawk) own a 41/2-game lead over second-place Liberal.
“We went six days in a row, real proud of the effort they gave,” Larks manager Frank Leo said, adding he prepared for the busy stretch by giving players off days in June.
Leo also has had to make roster changes halfway through the season. Earlier in the summer, Leo lost a couple pitchers and brought in right-handed reliever Shane Browning.
Earlier in the week, first baseman-outfielder Jared Martin and shortstop Kolby Robinson – both right-handed hitters on a team lefty heavy – left the team. Leo said Martin left due to personal issues he had to take care of. Robinson, who will transfer to the University of Alabama, had to take care of issues with the school, which will take longer than originally thought. Leo brought in a pair of former Larks to fill those roster spots. Jacob Boston, an outfielder and first baseman, has already arrived in town and middle infielder R.J. Williams is expected to join the team on Tuesday. They both hit from the right side.
Martin was hitting .329 with 10 RBIs and Robinson was batting .270 with six RBIs. Williams, who can also play in the outfield, batted .250 for University of Texas-Arlington this spring, with three homers and 21 RBIs. Boston hit .341 with four homers and 46 RBIs for Angelo (Texas) State University this season.
Leo also is dealing with injuries to two of his three catchers. Easton Kirk, who leads the Jayhawk League in hitting, hurt his back on a swing and has not played since Monday. Leo said Kirk, who is batting .417 with five homers and 28 RBIs, could miss the weekend series with El Dorado.
“I’m only going to get him back in there when he’s close to 100 percent,” Leo said. “If he tweaks it again we may lose him for the summer.”
Cole Solomon also is not fully healthy, leaving Scott Wolverton as the only healthy Lark behind the plate.
“With Solomon, it’s a hip flexor we’re trying to nurse him through,” Leo said. “We’ll try to catch him a little bit because we can’t get by with one catcher.”
Kirk is not the only Lark with a hot bat. The Larks, who lead the league in hitting, are batting .315 as a team overall. Ryne Randle is batting .398 with a homer and 17 RBIs, and Wyatt Divis also has 17 runs driven in, with a .384 average. John Rensel has three homers and 24 RBIs and is hitting .366, while Daryl Myers has a team-high six homers with 24 RBIs and is at .351 on the season.
Last year’s club had more power, hitting 52 homers in 42 league games. So far this summer, Hays has a league-high 20 home runs in 20 Jayhawk games and 25 overall.
“We still don’t have the power we had last year,” Leo said. “It is a very solid club, not built on power.”
The Larks also lead the league in pitching; they are the only club with a team earned-run average under 4.00 this summer. In Friday’s series opener, Hays will go with right-hander Michael Wong (3-0, 0.99 ERA), followed by right-hander Tyler Blomster (2-0, 5.40), the league leader in strikeouts, on Saturday. Right-hander Austin Thomason (1-0, 4.22) is scheduled for Sunday’s series finale against the Broncos, who are 12-10 in league play, five games behind the Larks.
Leo looks at Browning as a closer, with Divis and Fabian Muniz also capable of finishing games. Browning has a 1.69 ERA with a win and a save. Muniz, who can either start or pitch out of the bullpen, is 4-0 with three saves and has a 1.26 ERA. Divis is 2-0 with one save and a 1.17 ERA. Left-hander Toby Scoles (2-0, 2.04) has been effective in middle relief.
“We’ve got a lot of good arms we can run out there,” Leo said.
Leo looks at two keys to continued success in the season’s second half.
“Number one, got to stay healthy,” he said. “Number two, we can’t sit back. We’ve got to keep bearing down and do what we did in June.”
Ruder remembers Larks program back in the day
By Randy Gonzales
June 30, 2018
HAYS – Back in the day, when Russ Ruder played shortstop for the Hays Larks, fans did not flock to Larks Park as they do these days. Ruder, who played for the Larks from 1981 to 1985, reflected on his summers in the sun at Saturday’s Old Timers Night.
“There was not nearly the attendance, not nearly the activity,” Ruder said. “You had some family and girlfriends. You might get 50 people. You know, it was totally different then from what it is now. It’s great to see the crowds they have now.”
When Ruder donned a Larks uniform, the team was largely comprised of local kids who played junior college ball and were home for the summer. The teams to beat back then were the Hutchinson Broncos and Liberal BeeJays, who were stocked with big-name college players.
“It was extremely competitive,” Ruder said. “The Hutch Broncos (had an outfield of) Rafael Palmeiro, Pete Incaviglia, Barry Bonds. (Roger) Clemens pitched for them, I think in ’84. Mike Macfarlane was a catcher for them.
“Then you had Liberal, which had (pitchers) Calvin Schiraldi, Mike Moore. There were a lot of first-round draft picks.”
Ruder’s teammates included Steve Sedbrook, Cam Clark and Garry and Larry Lang. Current Larks manager Frank Leo was the skipper back then, too.
“Being that we were a bunch of local kids, (Hutchinson and Liberal) cleaned our clock most of the time,” Ruder said. “The two teams you tried to beat were Liberal and Hutch. They were the two powerhouses.”
It wasn’t called “Larks Magic” back then, but the Larks might be under .500 during the regular season then make a surprising run at the National Baseball Congress World Series. Ruder said it seemed like every summer the Larks would experience success in Wichita, taking fifth in 1985, his final season.
“It always seemed when we went to the NBC tournament we won a couple games there,” Ruder said.
Ruder’s older brother, Rod, also played for the Larks. He and was on the team with Leo, who lived with the Ruders; they were his host family when he was a Lark. They also played together at Fort Hays State University.
“I tagged along with Frank and Rod probably since I was 8 or 9 years old,” Ruder said. “I was the Larks’ bat boy; I was the Fort Hays bat boy. They brought me out to practice. I learned a lot of the game from Frank.”
Ruder started his college career at the University of Arkansas, until he hurt his arm. He ended up playing ball at Fort Hays, where he graduated in 1985. This summer is the next generation of Ruders in a Larks uniform. Left-handed pitcher Ryan Ruder, Russ’ son, pitched for Fort Hays in the spring and works out of the bullpen in his first summer as a Lark.
“I’m thankful for Frank and (pitching coach) Keith (Harper) for asking, because obviously playing for the Larks now is a big deal,” Ruder said. “For them to reach out was very, very nice of them.”
Ruder, 56, was a bank examiner until he retired in April. These days, he enjoys playing golf and watching baseball. He was appreciative of the Larks program honoring former players before Saturday night’s game.
“I think it’s very nice to reach out, keep the history alive,” Ruder said.
Wong pitches Larks past Haysville
By Randy Gonzales
June 29, 2018
HAYS – Right-hander Michael Wong turned in a dominating performance in his last start but had nothing to show for it. Friday night at Larks Park, Wong had another strong outing, and this time came away with the victory in the Hays Larks’ 9-1 Jayhawk League win over the Haysville Aviators. At Derby last week, Wong tossed 81/3 scoreless innings but came away with a no-decision in a game the Larks won 2-0 in 11 innings.
“That’s two outings in a row he’s been very good,” Larks manager Frank Leo said.
Wong, from Pima (Ariz.) Community College, is in his first season with the Larks, said his Derby start was his best start of the summer. His start against Haysville was more of the same.
“Everything was working (against Derby), just like tonight,” Wong said. “I’ve never pitched that long before in my life.”
Against Haysville, Wong (3-0) was in control after giving up a run in the first inning. He finished with two walks and seven strikeouts in six innings, scattering five hits. Toby Scoles, Mason Myhre and Shane Browning finished up, each pitching a scoreless inning.
“I had all three of my pitches today,” Wong said. “My fastball was good, I could locate it. My curveball was biting, but my changeup was really the difference today. I had a lot of swings over the ball; they couldn’t touch it.”
For the season, Wong has an earned-run average of 0.99, allowing 17 hits in 271/3 innings, with three walks and 22 strikeouts.
“He’s got a very good curveball, good changeup, good fastball,” Leo said. “When you’ve got that kind of combination, pound the zone, you’re going to give us a chance to win every time.”
Leo said Wong has become one of the Larks’ top starters.
“Without a doubt,” Leo said, adding right-hander Austin Thomason (1-0, 3.31), the Larks’ probable starter against Haysville Saturday night, also has become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. “(Wong) and Thomason have been very consistent.”
On Military Appreciation Night, Leo appreciated not only Wong’s six strong innings, but also the Larks’ hitters breaking through in the late innings to blow open a tight ball game. Hays (17-5 overall, 11-4 Jayhawk) was leading 2-1 when the Larks scored two runs in the sixth, three in the seventh and two more in the eighth.
Leo said Haysville starter Andres Hackman was tough on the Larks’ hitters early, allowing only a two-run double by John Rensel in the second inning.
“That guy’s a little deceptive, kind of a funky motion,” Leo said. “I think we wore him down a little bit; guy threw a ton of pitches.”
Larks second baseman Daryl Myers did his part in the sixth. After a leadoff double by designated hitter Easton Kirk, Myers fouled off pitch after pitch before hitting a single to right to put runners on the corners.
“Daryl Myers’ at-bat was fantastic,” Leo said. “I stopped counting about 12 or 13 (pitches).”
Rensel followed with an RBI double to make it 3-1, and Matt Munoz added a run-scoring groundout. Myers belted a three-run homer over the wall in right in the seventh for a 7-1 lead. The Larks scored twice in the eighth when Kirk singled home one run and another run scored on the play on an error.
Kirk, the cleanup hitter, went 5-for-5, including a double, with three runs scored and an RBI. Myers, batting fifth, added two singles to his homer, with two runs scored and three RBIs. Rensel, the No. 6 hitter, hit two doubles and a single, with three RBIs and a run scored.
“That’s the middle of the order,” Leo said. “That’s what you expect those guys to do.”
Hays sits atop the Jayhawk League standings, and winning series is the key, Leo said. The Larks go for the series win Saturday night.
“That’s what we want to try to do,” Leo said. “You win Game 2, you don’t want to kick back. You want to go for the sweep.”
Kirk catches on with Larks
By Randy Gonzales
June 27, 2018
HAYS – Easton Kirk’s college numbers looked appealing to Hays Larks manager Frank Leo when he was searching the Internet to add a catcher for the 2018 season. Kirk, a freshman at Wallace State (Ala.) Community College, batted .346 this spring with 10 homers and 52 RBIs. Entering Wednesday’s Jayhawk League game at Dodge City, Kirk was leading the team in home runs (4) and RBIs (19) and was hitting. 342 for Hays (15-5 overall, 9-4 Jayhawk).
“He’s one of those guys that just keeps grinding it out,” Leo said. “Very good hitter, count on him to put good wood on the ball. Each at-bat is very competitive on his part.”
Last year’s Larks hit for power; Kirk has been a power source for the Larks this season. The left-handed hitter has two grand slams plus a game-winning, two-run homer in the 11th inning at Derby over the weekend.
“It was awesome,” Kirk said of the homer against the Twins. “It was the first home run I’ve hit that late in a game.”
Leo likes Kirk’s ability to hit the long ball.
“He’s the guy that has that kind of potential for us, turn the game around in a hurry,” Leo said. “He does bring that element to the plate.”
Kirk said hitting for power was one of his strengths as a player, and he takes pride in his defense, too, blocking balls in the dirt and framing pitches. Leo has noticed that aspect of Kirk’s game.
“His defense, a very good blocker, tough behind the plate, good receiver,” Leo said. “He brings a complete package to the field.”
Leo prefers to carry three catchers during the long, hot summer, where temperatures can soar into the triple digits. That depth is necessary, with Kirk sharing time behind the plate with Scott Wolverton and Cole Solomon. Leo said Wolverton is a capable defensive catcher and Solomon is a versatile switch-hitter who has started at third base in addition to behind the plate.
“It is very helpful, especially after catching this last spring,” Kirk said of the Larks’ catching depth. “It gives my legs a little break between games.”
Leo also can use Kirk at designated hitter to keep his bat in the lineup. Kirk is one of several left-handed hitters on the club, and the Larks are starting to see more and more left-handed starters.
“I think the word’s out; we’re going to see them,” Leo said. “Easton is one of those guys that does get a pretty good swing off a lefty.”
Kirk, who hails from the small town of Piedmont, Ala., population of about 5,000 people, said he is enjoying his time in Hays. He agreed to play for the Larks without knowing anything about the town or fans.
“The atmosphere of the games is pretty cool,” Kirk said. “Coach Leo called and asked me to come. I thought it would be a pretty fun experience.”
One bad inning costs Larks
By Randy Gonzales
June 25, 2018
HAYS – One bad inning hurt the Hays Larks in Monday night’s Jayhawk League game against the Dodge City A’s. Larks right-hander Tyler Blomster had two outs and two runners on in the third inning then gave up four straight hits. The A’s scored five runs in the inning in an eventual 6-2 victory at Larks Park.
“If we could have just minimized that inning a little bit, held them to three runs, maybe it’s different rest of the game,” Larks manager Frank Leo said. “I thought every one of those guys had good at-bats. They had a plan, looked like.”
The A’s hit three straight RBI singles to make it 3-0, followed by an opposite-field, two-run double to left-center by Owen Jansen. Blomster (1-2) took the loss, surrendering five runs over five innings. Left-hander Ryan Ruder tossed a scoreless inning, left-hander Toby Scoles pitched 1 2/3 innings and right-hander Shane Browning, who just joined the club, got the final four outs, allowing an unearned run in the ninth.
The highlight for the Larks was an inside-the-park home run in the seventh by catcher Scott Wolverton. He led off the inning with a high drive to deep center field. A’s center fielder Kyle Cullen crashed into the wall trying to make the catch and fell to the warning track. By the time left fielder Jordan Vujovich picked up the ball and threw it to the infield, Wolverton was already steaming around third and scored standing up.
“When I hit it, I knew I got a good piece of it, I started sprinting around the bases as hard as I could,” said Wolverton of his first homer of the summer. “When I saw he dropped it I was coming around second base. Coach said keep going, made it all the way.”
Wolverton said his last inside-the-park homer likely came in high school. He was happy to dispel the myth that catchers are slow.
“I’m trying to prove them wrong, for sure,” he said with grin.
The Larks’ other run scored on an RBI groundout by Devin Hager in the fourth inning. Hays threatened in the eighth, loading the bases with two outs, but leadoff man Ryne Randle hit a high fly ball to right to end the inning.
“We had the right guy up,” Leo said. “He just missed that pitch; he got it on the barrel but got under it a little bit.”
Dodge City starter Brady Rodriguez worked the first five innings to pick up the victory. The left-hander allowed one run before giving way to three relievers as Dodge City improved to 6-6 in league play.
“I think he was keeping us off-balance a little bit,” Wolverton said. “He was throwing his stuff pretty well.”
The Larks scored 26 runs in their last game but struggled to score Monday.
“It’s just part of the game,” Wolverton said.
The Larks are off Tuesday before playing the A’s in Dodge City on Wednesday. After another off day Thursday, Hays (15-5 overall, 9-4 Jayhawk) starts a three-game series with the Haysville Aviators on Friday at Larks Park. Friday’s game is Military Appreciation Night and Saturday’s game is Larkstoberfest and Old Timers Night.
Larks’ hitters off to hot start
By Randy Gonzales
June 19, 2018
HAYS – Manager Frank Leo thought this summer’s version of the Hays Larks would hit for average, but for not as much as power as last year’s club. Through the Larks’ first 15 games, Leo has been right on the money when it comes to prognostications. The Larks are hitting .308 as a team, with eight home runs.
Leo thinks a team that makes consistent contact at the plate is better suited for the National Baseball Congress World Series in August at Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
“I think you’re better fitted for postseason play at Lawrence-Dumont; home run ball does not come into play as much,” Leo said. “You’re better equipped if you can develop that contact hitter.”
Jared Martin, a first baseman and outfielder for the Larks, leads the team in hitting with a .439 batting average. He has yet to homer and has driven in eight runs.
Leo said Martin has made some adjustments at the plate that have proved beneficial. Martin, who started almost every game at Stephen F. (Texas) Austin as a freshman this spring, said the time off between the end of the spring season and the start of summer action allowed him to take a break; he felt refreshed entering the Larks’ season.
“Now, I feel like I’m more ready to play,” Martin said.
After a three-game sweep of non-league Oklahoma City over the weekend, Hays is now 12-3 overall and will take a 6-2 Jayhawk League record into Dodge City Wednesday night, when the Larks resume action after a two-day break.
The Larks have put their depth to good use so far this summer. The players look at the lineup card to see if they are in the lineup that night – and at what position.
“You never know where you’re playing,” Martin said. “We have five or six guys who can play at least two positions. That depth and versatility is huge for us, especially as we get later into the season.”
Leo is learning about his players’ capabilities as the summer progresses.
“I’m getting a very good feel for what these guys can do,” Leo said. “They pull together for each other. One guy that sits is cheering for the guy playing that day. They’re all going to get their opportunities.”
Martin thinks one thing the Larks can do is hit for more power. In the offseason he works with Ryan O’Hearn, a slugging first baseman in the Kansas City Royals farm system who is an alumnus from the same high school as Martin.
“Last year, they did have a ton of power,” Martin said. “This year, we probably have four or five home-run hitters on the team. But the way the weather’s been lately, the wind blowing in every night, we just haven’t hit any home runs yet.”
Outfielder Matt Munoz leads the team in both home runs (3) and RBIs (13), and catcher Easton Kirk is batting .304 with two homers, including a grand slam, and 11 RBIs. Outfielder Clayton Rasbeary, pitcher-DH Walter Pennington and infielder Daryl Myers also have gone deep for the Larks. Myers is batting .378, fourth on the team, with nine RBIs. After Martin’s team-leading average, infielder Wyatt Divis is not far behind at .436, with nine runs batted in. Infielder Ryne Randle is hitting .386 with six RBIs. Infielder Devin Hager is also over .300, batting .312 with eight RBIs.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Martin said. “Probably bigger than the talent, we’ve got a really fun group.”
The Larks are averaging almost 10 runs per game while the pitching staff has an earned-run average of 3.96 through 15 games. Right-hander Fabian Muniz in 2-0 with three saves. While pitching as a starter, in long relief and as the team’s closer, he has yet to give up an earned run in a team-high 17 innings, allowing five hits, with five walks and 17 strikeouts. Right-hander Michael Wong is 2-0 with a 1.39 ERA in 13 innings, with one walk and nine strikeouts.
“We can do any role we want with him,” Leo said of Muniz. “He would like to become a starter, but he also understands he’s very valuable to us out of the bullpen. He gives you a lot of peace of mind out of the bullpen, knowing what you’re going to get.”
Pennington (0-0, 6.48) is the probable starter for Wednesday’s game in Dodge City, while left-hander Nick Skeffington (0-1, 3.72) is slated to take the mound when the two teams meet again Thursday at 7 p.m. at Larks Park. Hays is in first place in the Jayhawk League as the Larks start a stretch of six games in six nights.
“Now we prepare for the big June push and on into July,” Leo said.
Larks bounce back with win
By Randy Gonzales
June 10, 2018
In the series opener the night before, El Dorado stymied the Larks’ hitters. In Saturday night’s middle game of the three-game series, Hays bounced back, putting together a couple of big innings for a 10-2 Jayhawk League win at Larks Park. The final game of the series is Sunday at 7 p.m.
“We talked after the game (Friday) night, the key to winning the Jayhawk League title is winning series,” Hays manager Frank Leo said. “They came to the park to play.”
Center fielder Ryne Randle, hitting second in the batting order, got on base five times, including four walks, and scored four runs. Designated hitter Wyatt Divis and left fielder John Martin each drove in a pair of runs.
“We had a meeting before the game about our hitting,” said Randle, who is batting .320 with a .514 on-base percentage. “Looks like it worked.”
Leo likes having Randle at the top of the order.
“You’re not going to get him to chase a whole lot,” Leo said of Randle, who is second on the team with 10 walks. “He’s great in the two-hole.”
Hays (6-2 overall, 3-1 Jayhawk) got a run in the first when Randle walked with one out, stole second and came home on Martin’s two-out infield single. The Larks had a chance at a big inning in the third but got only one run when Randle scored on a bases-loaded double-play ball.
The Larks broke through for four runs in the fourth, chasing El Dorado starter Dylan Dzendzel, who took the loss. The first run of the inning scored on an error, then Divis lined a double into the gap in left-center to score two more, and Martin added a sacrifice fly.
After the Broncos (2-2, 2-2) scored two runs in the fifth to get within 6-2, Hays added a run in the sixth and three in the seventh. Randle walked to lead off the sixth, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on first baseman John Rensel’s grounder to second. In the seventh, shortstop Kolby Robinson hit an RBI single, third baseman Devin Hager’s groundout scored a run and a wild pitch added another.
Larks right-hander Carlos Tavera picked up the win in relief of starter Mason Myhre, who worked four scoreless innings until faltering in the fifth. After getting the first out of the inning, Myhre allowed a single and two walks to load the bases, bringing in Tavera. A sacrifice fly made it 6-1, then Tavera walked two straight batters, the second one forcing in another run. Tavera then locked into a battle with Broncos catcher Brady Sargent, who kept fouling off fastballs. Tavera tried a curveball on the outside corner for strike three to end the threat. Sargent did not like the call, gesturing to the umpire with his hands apart.
“I think a key turning point in that game, 6-2 ball game, Tavera’s got the bases loaded and that kid keeps fouling off fastball, fastball, fastball,” Leo said. “Tavera trusted his curveball and froze the guy.”
Tavera worked a 1-2-3 sixth before giving way to right-hander Fabian Muniz in the seventh. The Larks right-hander had a runner on second with two outs when El Dorado third baseman John Sorensen hit a line drive to deep center field. Randle raced back and made a diving catch to end the inning.
“When that ball left the bat we’re all in (the dugout) thinking that’s probably over his head,” Leo said. “Out of nowhere – that was outstanding. One of the better catches I’ve seen a center fielder make.”
Muniz finished up, tossing three scoreless innings for his second save. He allowed two hits with one walk and four strikeouts. In eight innings over three appearances, Muniz has not allowed a run, with three walks and nine strikeouts.
“Fabian’s good; he works at a great pace,” Leo said. “He kind of slings that off-speed slider, whatever he’s throwing. That change of pace is tough to stay on.”
Muniz was throwing with a three-quarters delivery that made it tough on Broncos right-handed hitters. He struck out the final two batters to end the game, both of them flailing away on off-speed deliveries.
“Everything was working for me,” said Muniz, who can drop to a sidearm delivery. “I usually throw my two-seam (fastball). My slider was working, my changeup was on. Everything was on tonight, felt great.”
Hays’ probable starter for Sunday’s series finale is right-hander Austin Thomason, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery on his arm.
Larks program grows through the years
By Randy Gonzales
June 8, 2018
When Frank Leo first took over the Hays Larks in 1980, the program had a 24-74 record over the four previous seasons. Attendance for Hays’ summer-collegiate team was sparse for the first several years he coached the team. However, in recent seasons Larks Park has become the place to be during the summer.
“It’s a great atmosphere here,” said Leo, who is in his 33rd season as the Larks’ manager. “Used to be, I could stand in the coaching box and look in the stands and know everybody who was there. Now, it’s a mass of people, which is fun.
“It took a lot of work to get where we’re at,” he added. “It really has become a thing to do in Hays in the summer time. It’s really fun to see people come out to the ball park, enjoy the game, see people.”
The product on the field in the early years of Leo’s tenure was hampered by limited funding, which restricted recruiting. Still, the team would often come together at the end of the summer, using “Larks Magic” to make a run at the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita.
The Larks return three players off last year’s club that made it to the NBC semifinals. Left fielder Clayton Rasbeary enjoyed his time in Hays, America, last summer.
“It was awesome,” he said. “All the winning, and the host families were great. The guys were cool, easy to be around with.”
Rasbeary and pitcher Walter Pennington – another returner – marveled at the Hays crowds, compared to what they experienced when they went on the road.
“Hays blew everybody out of the water,” Rasbeary said. “We have the best fans in the league.”
Pennington noticed that Larks’ fans remained focused on the game, hooting and hollering from first pitch to final out.
“The fans are always into it,” Pennington said. “So much more fun playing at home. You don’t want to let the fans down.”
Off the field, the summer of 2007 was a turning point, Leo said. In the late 1980s the Larks started using sponsorships to allow free admission for home games. That helped, but the Larks were still in danger of not having the resources to play a schedule that summer of 2007. Leo instinctively knew that if there was a summer without baseball the Larks – who had been in existence since 1946 — would be in danger of folding.
A public plea for fans to come out to the park helped, as did the formation of the Diamond Club, which raised funds for the program. The program flourished on the field that summer, too, taking second in the Jayhawk League and finishing runner-up at the NBC World Series.
“It’s been fun to see the program grow,” Leo said.
The Larks play before packed stands on a nightly basis these days, with fans also taking up spots on lawn chairs by the dugout and leaning against the fence down the left-field line. Larks apparel is for sale next to the concession stand, which has Larks burgers and brats for hungry fans. If the beverage batter cooperates, fans flock to the concession stand for discounted drinks.
Chris Lee and one of his daughters drove over from Quinter for a recent game. They make it to about a handful of games every summer. Lee was wearing a former Lark’s jersey — Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros — while cheering the team on to victory.
“It’s just a wonderful way to spend a summer evening,” Lee said. “It’s fun to see these kids hustle on and off the field. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Last year, for the first time, Larks’ games were streamed live on the Internet, and every game this summer, both home and away, can be seen. The program’s website has been updated, and statistics, boxscores and the roster are just a click away. The team also has a presence on social media, with Twitter and Instagram accounts and a Facebook page.
Leo, who was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and the NBC Hall of Fame in 2015, won his 1,000th game as Larks’ manager last summer. More than a few former Larks have gone to play in the major leagues, most notably Berkman and slugger Albert Pujols. Hays has won nine Jayhawk League titles under Leo and finished second at the NBC World Series five times. Hays lost to Team USA in the title game in 1995. In 2000 and 2001 the Larks were second at the World Series both years. This is the final year Wichita’s historic Lawrence-Dumont will host the World Series.
“I think the most recent surge started about 2000,” Leo said. “I know in ’95 we made a big run with Berkman. The year (2000) we lost to Anchorage in the ninth inning; Anchorage brought in Jeff Francis, who had a decent major league career. We beat him in the quarterfinals, 1-0, 11-inning game.
“A lot of good memories at Lawrence-Dumont,” Leo added. “We never won that big ball game. We put ourselves in position a number of times; a fun position to be in.”
Lots of new faces for Larks in 2018
By Randy Gonzales
HAYS – The Hays Larks return just three players off last summer’s team that made it to the semifinals of the National Baseball Congress World Series. However, manager Frank Leo enters his 36th season with several promising newcomers to the Hays program.
“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.”