By GERARD WELLBROCK
WICHITA - The Hays Larks used another strong pitching performance and a couple of late home runs to push past the Liberal Bee Jays 6-2 in the semifinals of the 88th National Baseball Congress World Series Friday night at Eck Stadium.
Garrett Gruell hit a two-run homer off the light pole in left field to break a 2-2 tie in the top of the eighth inning. Palmer Hutchison hit his second homer of the tournament, also a two-run shot to left in the ninth, to give the Larks some insurance.
The Larks (38-9), who entered the game with the lowest ERA in this year's tournament, got another great start this time from Ben Baker-Livingston. The New Mexico freshman allowed the two runs on two hits with three strikeouts and two walks over 5 2/3 innings. Sam Hendon (4-1) followed with a scoreless 1 1/3 innings and picked up the win. Ben McLaughlin, who missed Thursday's quarterfinal round game due to food poisoning, recorded the final six outs for his first save. McLaughlin struck out three of the final four Liberal to send the Larks to Saturday night's title game.
Liberal grabbed the lead in the second on a home run from Tyse Armstrong.
The Larks scored two in the fourth to take the lead. Dylan Dreiling was hit by pitch with one out then scored on a Garrett Gruell double. Leo Jiminian drove in Gruell with a two-out liner to center field.
The Bee Jays (34-6) answered with a run in the bottom of the inning on a groundout following a leadoff single and wild pitch to tie the game 2-2. They would only get two runners in scoring position the rest of the way.
Ben McLaughlin opened the decisive eighth inning with a walk but was forced out at second on a ground ball to second by Dreiling. Gruell followed with his third home run of the season to give Hays the lead for good.
Jack Torosian doubled with two outs in the top of the ninth then scored on Hutchison's team-leading 11th blast.
The Larks win the season series with Liberal 3-2. Each went 1-1 on their home field during the regular season with the Bee Jays clinching the Rocky Mountain Baseball League title in the final meeting at Larks Park July 22nd.
The Larks and Bee Jays are now 2-2 in games played at the NBC World Series. The Larks won in 1996 but lost in the 2000 title game and in 2008.
SIXTH TIME IS A CHARM
The Larks will face the Santa Barbara Forester's in Saturday's title game at 7:00 p.m. Santa Barbara, who has won the last two titles, beat the Seattle Studs 9-2 in Friday's second semifinal.
This is the Larks sixth trip to the NBC World Series title game, losing in 2016, 2007, 2001, 2000 and 1995.