Liberal sweeps two-game set from Larks
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
With only two-and-a-half games separating first from last, the battle for the Jayhawk League is going to be a dogfight.
With eight games down, the Bee Jays have been able to rise to the top of the standings after sweeping a two-game set from the Hays Larks and winning four out of five on a long road trip.
While the league season is only a quarter complete, the three teams from the West sit at the top of the standings (Liberal, Dodge City and Hays) while the three Eastern teams are currently the bottom (El Dorado, Derby and Haysville).
But that can change quickly with a thin margin from top to bottom, and that is why the two-game sweep over Hays was crucial for the Bee Jays.
After winning the first game 6-4, the Bee Jays earned another tight win, 4-3 Wednesday with John Branum earning the win in his second straight night of relief.
“He’s a bulldog,” Liberal manager Brandon Kitch said. “He’s a competitor. He’s good enough to get anyone out. He pounds the zone. That’s what you need coming out of your bullpen. He keeps the ball down. That makes it tough to elevate the ball. I told (pitching coach) Adam (Anderson), I am comfortable with a one run lead late with our bullpen.”
The Bee Jays fell behind 3-1 heading in to the seventh but scored two runs tot ie the game.
Branum came on in the bottom of the seventh to get two outs, and in the top of the eighth, Stephen Gandy hit a two-out RBI single to score Travis Sibley from second to put the Bee Jays ahead 4-3.
Branum took over from there, keeping Hays off the bases, and getting a strike out and two pop flies in the ninth to preserve the one-run win.
Kitch has given the Bee Jays a nickname to represent their late-game heroics.
“I told the guys after the game that every team has an identity, and that this team is the silent assassins,” Kitch said. “They coast through the first seven innings and then they sniper you in seventh and eighth. I would like to start earlier, but I’ll take the wins. There’s no panic. Our pitchers are doing a great job throwing strikes and getting outs.”
Hays made it difficult for the Bee Jays by keeping the lead-off batter off base. But the Larks bullpen had been tested over four straight days of games.
“I told the guys if we can get into the bullpen, we can get to them,” Kitch said.
Liberal too advantage of the Hays relievers to take the lead, and Branum was able to close the door.
The clutch hit from Gandy was the difference along with a first-inning home run from Dayne Parker.
“We are getting those two-out hits, and our base runners are on the move,” Kitch said.
But the Bee Jay bullpen has been able to keep the opposition from rallying late by throwing key pitches in two-out situations that have led to ground-outs or pop flies.
“We communicate enough to put the right guy on the mound,” Kitch said. “We get a ground ball or flyball guy. We are getting the pitch to end the inning.”
Liberal (5-3) will take today off and return to Brent Gould Field Friday to host Derby (3-5).
Admission is free, courtesy Madden Oil.