If recent history is any indication, the game between Hays and Seattle on Friday in the National Baseball Congress World Series was for second place.
The Studs and, in particular, Hays have been the embodiment of bad fortune in the NBC over the last 15-plus years. They have combined for zero championships and six runner-up finishes — four by the Larks — since 1995.
Seattle earned a chance to finally break that cycle, beating Hays 6-2 in the semifinals at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The Studs will play the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters in Saturday night’s winner-take-all-championship game.
Santa Barbara beat El Dorado 2-1 in Friday’s other semifinal. The Broncos stranded 10 baserunners, including one on second base in the ninth inning.
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The Foresters, the defending champions are trying for their fourth NBC title since 2006. They beat the Studs for the championship in 2008.
"It is such a tough tournament to win," Hays manager Frank Leo said. "It is a grind. You have to have things go for you every night. You can’t take a night off, you can’t take an inning off, especially when it gets this late."
Hays nearly completed an improbable run after losing its first-round game to Greeley (Colo.), working its way through the losers bracket and defeating tournament favorite Santa Barbara on Thursday to give the Foresters their first NBC loss since 2010. It was Hays’ sixth straight win.
The Larks were unable to match the experience of Seattle’s veteran lineup and pitching staff, which includes numerous college graduates from high Division I programs. Hays made two errors in the Studs’ two-run third, which made it 3-0 after Seattle scored with the help of a leadoff walk in the third.
After the game, Hays picked up the award for highest team batting average in the tournament, but their .284 clip was offset by an overflow of runners left on base, including nine on Friday.
"We’d trade (the award) in for a couple key hits tonight, but unfortunately in this game you can’t do that," Leo said. "We’re disappointed. Our guys are gassed. They played hard, but the tank tonight unfortunately was running on empty."
The Larks determined early that their best chance to win was by making Seattle starter Miles Nagel uncomfortable with their baserunning. The first four Hays batters to reach base combined for five stolen bases.
That didn’t equate to production immediately, though, and Hays trailed 4-0 by the time it turned a stolen base into a run. The Larks also didn’t get enough baserunners against Nagel, who allowed three hits and four walks in 6 2/3 innings.
"I was just trying to get outs," Nagel said. "I don’t know anything about them — it’s my first year here."
Hays scored in the eighth and threatened for more, putting runners on first and second with one out and runners on first and second against Seattle relief ace Taylor Thompson. With chances to produce more runs, pinch hitter Todd Reller and Joe Betcher both fouled out.
Seattle held on and will be playing in tonight’s championship and for a chance to reverse disappointing finishes — the Studs were runners-up in 2008 and 2010.
"We haven’t talked about it too much,” Seattle designated hitter Brady Steiger said. "We know about it. We took seventh last year, kind of disappointing. This group this year, everyone is really relaxed. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing in a while. We keep having fun and we keep doing what we’re doing."