Of course, it took a leadoff walk and a bad throw to decide an otherwise well-played game.
Hays defeated Casa Grande (Ariz.) 1-0 behind pitcher Chandler Hawkins, a lefty who produced a series of harmless groundballs in 8 1/3 no-stress innings on Saturday in the NBC World Series at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Things got wild in the ninth, until Arkansas State teammate David Owen bailed him out with runners on second and third.
“I play with Owen and I know what he can do,” Hawkins said. “I was nothing but excited to turn the game over to David.”
Thanks to the groundballs, Hawkins faced the minimum amount of batters from the second through the eighth innings. Double plays erased leadoff singles in the fourth and sixth innings. No runner reached second base until the ninth.
Despite all that, it almost came unraveled for the Larks. Hawkins hit the Nathan Enriquez to lead off the ninth, then recovered to catch Mark Bradley’s pop up on a bunt. He looked back in control, until Eric Dawson ripped a single to center. Aaron Cornell bobbled the ball and it rolled several feet away. Enriquez, going from first to third, slid headfirst into third and couldn’t see the loose ball, missing a chance to run home with the tying score. Dawson got to second.
Meanwhile, Owen watched from the dugout after warming up before the inning, unsure if he would be needed. He expected to go in if a runner reached, but manager Frank Leo stuck with Hawkins after the hit batsman. After the single, Hays needed Owen in a hurry.
“I was prepared, but nervous about the situation,” he said. “I would say it’s probably the most crucial situation I’ve been in this year.”
Owen struck out shortstop Ashton McCoy on a 1-2 pitch, freezing him with a curveball. Chris Truitt bounced out to shortstop Jake Placzek to end the game.
“Runners on second and third with one out, you’re just praying you can get that first guy out out without a ground ball or a pop fly,” Owen said.
Owen preserved a memorable outing for Hawkins, who allowed three hits, struck out six and didn’t walk a batter. He hit his spots with the fastball, getting in on batters and keeping the ball low. He used his changeup to get them to chase pitches away. He doesn’t consider himself a dominant groundball pitcher. On Saturday, he looked the part.
“I just try to fill up the zone, and they doing what they were doing with the baseball,” he said.
The Cotton Kings got a lot of looks at Hawkins’ fastball, yet failed to hit many with authority.
“He was getting ahead and we weren’t hitting the fastball,” Truitt said. “He kept us off-balance with his off-speed, and we weren’t hitting the fastballs.”
The Larks scored in the top of the seventh without needing a hit. A leadoff walk to No. 9 hitter Spencer Neve turned into a run when McCoy fielded a chopper on the move, just as Neve ran past toward third, and threw past first base. Neve score easily.
Hays threatened to break through in the early innings. In the fourth, strikeouts by Taylor Petersen and Brent Gillespie stranded Clayton Garland, who doubled, at third base.
Hays left the bases loaded in the fifth inning when Cornell fouled out to first baseman Shane Crawford. Casa Grande starter Brandon Faulkner walked two and hit a batter in the inning and a fourth hitter reached after a dropped third strike. Catcher Nathan Enriquez threw out Desmond Roberts trying to steal second for the second out of the inning.
Faulkner gave up a run and three hits in six innings, striking out eight and walking four.
Crawford made the game’s most spectacular play, running full-speed toward the Hays dugout and sliding into the wall while grabbing a foul ball just off the dirt for the second out of the sixth inning.
“The first game sets the momentum,” Hawkins said. “I was just happy that coaches put first game in my hands.”
A year ago, Hays lost its first game and fought through the losers bracket to finish in a tie for third. They can take an easier route this summer.