Hays Larks complete comeback against Kansas Cannons

Lionel Tipton
Contributing to Butler County Times-Gazette
The Cannons pitcher warms up in a game in the Kansas Collegiate Baseball League

AUGUSTA, Kansas— In their 75 years of existence, the Hays Larks have forged a well-deserved reputation for resiliency and confidence. 

For many years in the now-defunct Jayhawk Summer League, the Larks time and again would find a way to defy seemingly insurmountable odds and pull out a victory.

Trailing the Kansas Cannons, 11-4, after six innings Tuesday night, a comeback in the non-conference game appeared unlikely.

But in the Larks’ eighth, they were the beneficiary of eight walks from Cannons pitchers, leading to five runs without benefit of a hit.

And they continued the rally in the ninth, scoring twice to tie the score and force extra innings.

In the 10th, Hays scored four times on just three hits and held the Cannons scoreless after the sixth for a 15-11 victory at Wheeler Stadium.

That the Larks were able to mount a comeback wasn’t surprising. Frank Leo, in his 40th year with the Larks as a player and a coach, wasn’t surprised. Neither was Cannons coach Dusty Gray. It’s just what the Larks do and have done for a number of years with talent that included future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. 

When the Jayhawk League dissolved last year, the Larks joined the Rocky Mountain Baseball League. Naturally, they won the title in their first year. 

Leo said there’s a term for his team’s determination and ability to erase deficits.

“We call it ‘Larks Magic,’” he said. “We never give up. After 75 years, we’ve still got ‘Larks Magic’ and had a little bit of that (Tuesday night).

“We knew coming in pitchingwise we were going to be in a bind coming off four games in Colorado.”

Indeed. One of the Larks’ most effective pitchers came literally out of left field.

Starting left fielder Tyler Palmer took the mound in the seventh and retired 12 of the final 16 batters, benefiting from the Larks’ four-run 10th and got the victory. 

Palmer recently returned to the lineup about five games ago after an ankle injury, Leo said.

And he also helped himself in the four-run 10th, cranking a three-run homer that gave Hays a lead it would not relinquish.

Going to the Colorado league was a matter of survival, Leo said.

“We’ve got to make the best of it,” he said. “It’s a tough time with summer baseball for everybody.

“I could see (the Jayhawk disbanding) coming. Financially, things are getting tough for summer programs and (being able to) do the travel.”

The players are different, but the Larks’ tried-and-true system remains the same, Leo said.

“The kids are different every year, but you’ve got to get them to buy into what we do, and this bunch has,” Leo said.

His players might not have been as aware of the Larks’ history, but Cannons coach Gray certainly was.

“They’ve done that (come back) about 10 times this year,” he said. “They’re quite the franchise, and Frank’s been with them for most of it, so there’s a reason they’re good, and we kind of let it slip away.”

The unquestionable turning point of the game was the five-run eighth inning, when Hays sent 11 hitters to the plate. It was still gnawing at Gray afterward.

“We put up 11 runs on 13 hits; we should have had that game pretty handily,” he said. “The offense did what they were supposed to do; the pitchers didn’t take care of business.”

Gray said he tried to emphasize the urgency while Hays was chipping away the lead.

“That’s a rough one to take, but we kept telling them to stay in it, stay locked in and try to finish this out,” Gray said. “We just didn’t get it done, and it’s a tough one to swallow, and we’re going to lose some sleep over it.”