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After layoff, Larks ready for NBC

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

Early in the season, the Hays Larks' streak put them well out in front of the Jayhawk League.

Hays started a remarkable 14-1 overall and 10-1 in league play, one of the best starts under longtime manager Frank Leo.

But, Leo has always said what really matters is what his club does in July. The Larks had to battle, seemingly more so than most years, through injury and departures, to grind out the club's second straight league championship.

Their reward was a Championship Week berth under the new format of the National Baseball Congress World Series. Under the new system, the Larks had a nine-day layoff after earning the title. They filled it with three games.

But Hays did use that time to figure some things out, and get a little healthier.

"We had a lot of intensity going to win the Jayhawk League title," Leo said. "It came down to the last couple ball games.

"It's good to get a mental break," he added. "Physically, we needed to strengthen up a little. The trip to Colorado (a doubleheader with the Colorado Sox) helped a little. We got some game action."

More importantly, it gave Hays a chance to get a sub some time at first base, bring in some new pitchers, and gear up for Saturday's first game in the final 16 at the NBC, a 7 p.m. start Saturday with the Case Grande (Ariz.) Cotton Kings. The Larks take a 33-11 mark into the field.

"I actually like (the new format)," said third-year Lark Aaron Cornell, who was part of last year's Larks team to lose in their first game at the NBC. "We had to fight all the way back. That's tough after you play so many games.

"Now you work hard all year (for the title), and you get a week off and go in fresh."

Cornell was one of several Larks this season to suffer an injury, and was one who thought his summer might be over after some thought he would need meniscus surgery. He, like many on the roster, battled through. Others weren't so fortunate. Leo said roster shuffling this season was at an all-time high due to injury. Most recently, first baseman Cody Daily was sent home with a knee injury. Five position players and five pitchers departed during the course of the season -- injury or otherwise.

Brent Gillespie, an infielder from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Community College, has subbed in and will take over first base duties the rest of the way.

"We'll go with the 10 we've got (position players) -- stay healthy, stay strong," Leo said. "We don't have a lot of maneuverability during the course of a ball game."

What the Larks do have is a strong bullpen.

During the layoff, Hays added veteran right-hander Aaron Breit and reliever Graylon Brown, who was a reliever/closer for the Derby Twins this summer. The two add to an already deep pen that includes mainly Ian Bentley (3-1, 2.43 earned-run average), DJ Carr (1-0, 3.00, 2 saves) and David Owen (2-1, 0.33, 5 saves).

"If our starters can get us into the sixth inning and get us a lead, we're going to have firepower to come after it," Leo said.

Left-hander Chandler Hawkins (5-2, 2.43) will get the nod against the Cotton Kings. Nick Goza (6-1, 2.18) and Jason Zgardowski (4-3, 2.81) are Nos. 2 and 3 in the rotation. Beyond that, Leo will tackle that when it comes, a bonus that comes along with only playing in the 16-team field instead of having to grind through a 32-team marathon.

"But it's still going to be eight days of focus," Leo said. "You have to win five games. It still means you have to go four deep, and bring two back.

"When you're in that 16-day grind, you push guys a little bit harder."

The Hays offense has been driven in the top of the order by Cornell, Jake Placzek, Clayton Garland, Taylor Petersen and Ty Gilmore. Garland and Cornell (.378 and .368 average) lead the way. Garland, with team-high 38 RBIs, has been clutch. He and Cornell have enjoyed a hot July, despite battling injury.

Cornell was part of a Larks' club that was honored as the best offensive team last summer at the NBC after they battled back to take third after losing their first game.

"You have to take it one day, one game at a time," he said. "It's the same concept. If you get beat that first day, you still have to fight.

"We are just hoping to save our pitchers by making it through that winners' bracket this year.SDRq