Just six days ago, the Larks and Madison Mallards were celebrating first-half championships in the Northwoods League.
Nearly a week into the second half, both teams are sitting in the basement of their respective divisions.
With postseason berths already in the bank, there's no reason to panic. However, Larks coach Sean Repay is getting a little anxious for his team to revert to their winning ways.
They came close Sunday, rallying out of a 5-0 first-inning deficit to make things really interesting late, but the Willmar (Minn.) Stingers held on for a nervy 5-4 victory on another scorching day at Bismarck Municipal Ballpark.
"I think once we get that monkey off our back, it'll start flowing again. Right now some of the guys are pressing at the plate and trying to make too much happen instead of just trusting themselves and letting their natural ability take over," Repay said. "We just need to clear our heads, relax and go to work."
Down 5-0 into the bottom of the eighth, the Larks tried to rekindle some of that first-half magic with a late-inning rally in front of a crowd of 1,878.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Jacob Nesbit singled home Tristen Carranza for the Larks' first run.
It got really interesting in the bottom of the ninth.
With one out, Carson Bartels and Wyatt Ulrich stroked back-to-back singles. Braden Williams followed with a walk to load the bases. After Carranza flied out to right field to score Bartels, Matthew Warkentin laced a single into left field to make it 5-3. Ripken Reyes, the next batter, blooped a base hit to right field to make it 5-4 as Ulrich touched home.
That brought up Nesbit, who put together a quality at bat against hard-throwing Willmar reliever Jayson Newman. But the beefy right-hander, featuring a 93 mile-per-hour heater, got Nesbit to ground out to shortstop to end it, sending the Larks to their fifth straight loss.
The Larks have scored 13 runs in five games in the second half after averaging 6.3 per tilt over their first 36 contests, 25 of which were wins.
The quick-witted Repay joked that it might be time to go "Major League" on it.
"I don't know, maybe we need to sacrifice a live chicken or something," he said. "We've played better baseball the last two days. We've been barreling balls right at guys at the worst times ever, but that's baseball.
"We'll get back on the right path. It's coming. We just can't panic."
Willmar starting pitcher Corey Binger turned in a stellar performance for the Stingers.
Binger, who will pitch in the NSIC for Minnesota State Mankato next season, fired seven shutout innings, surrendering just five hits with four strikeouts.
"They have a really good ballclub over there, so it felt good to be able to give our team a chance to win today," said Binger, who pitched three years previously at NCAA Division I Nebraska Omaha and lowered his season ERA to 2.38 over 34 innings. "I was attacking with my fastball and was really working on getting ahead in the count."
Binger improved to 3-1 on the season for the Stingers, who are 3-2 in the second half and 25-15 overall, a half game better than the Larks.
"We finally got our core group of guys together and it's showing," said Binger, a native of Victoria, Minn., "We have a lot of good hitters and a lot of good pitchers. We feel pretty good about our chances."
Larks starting pitcher Danny Kuhn, who lasted just one inning, walked three, hit another and allowed four hits as the Stingers scored all five of their runs in the top of the first inning.
Eli Wilson’s soft single to center came with no outs and the bases loaded for the first two runs of the game.
Later in the inning, Davis Elliot and Jaxon Hallmark found holes with weak-contact base hits, but both scored runs to make it 5-0.
"Our starting pitching has to get a little better here in the second half," Repay said. "We're kind of in this rut it seems like where we're down 2-to-5 runs in the first inning and then we end up having to chase it all game long and we're already kind of pressing offensively, so that makes it tough."
The Larks loaded the bases in the bottom of the fourth inning, but Michael Farnell rolled out to second to end the threat.
Making his first appearance for the Larks, Walker Armstrong kept the home team within shouting distance. The right-hander from Division I Cal State Northridge fired five scoreless innings, allowing just five hits with four strikeouts.
Armstrong was the Matadors' Friday night starter during the college season, meaning he was their No. 1 guy. He logged a whopping 93 innings, however, so he's on a pretty strict limit with the Larks.
"He threw the ball great. He has good stuff. He's not overpowering necessarily, but he knows how to pitch," Repay said. "You can see why he was their Friday night guy. He's a nice addition to our bullpen. We're going to be conservative with him, but we're glad to have him."
The Larks continued to get strong relief out of their 'pen. After Armstrong, Zack Jones, Chris Roycroft and Colan Borchers each tossed scoreless frames.
"Our bullpen's been great all year. No matter who or when we've called on those guys, they've typically come in and done the job," Repay said.
The Larks outhit the Stingers 12-11. Nesbit went 3-for-4, while Reyes and Warkentin added two hits apiece.
Game 2 of the series is tonight at 7:05 p.m. The Larks will start ace Hendry Rodriguez (4-1) owner of a 1.48 ERA in 34 1/3 innings.
Kyle Stevens (.274 avg., 4 HR, 24 RBI) and Chase Coker (.304. 1 HR, 15 RBI) remain out of the lineup with injuries. Stevens returned home to Missouri to rehab, but could be back within the week. Coker was hit on the wrist two nights ago and likely will be out four or five more days, Repay reported. ... During Sunday's game, center fielder Cristian Montes suffered an ankle sprain running to first base. With Montes hobbled, the Larks are down to nine healthy position players. ... The Larks' bullpen has taken a few big hits over the last week. Tristen Hudson, who had an ERA of 1.82 in 24 innings, elected to return to West Virginia University to work on his hitting, a decision that was supported by the WVU coaching staff. "Huddy was one of the best relief pitchers in this league. He did a great job," Repay said. Hudson had 33 at bats for the Larks with six hits. ... Borchers, who has served as the Larks' closer with six saves, will leave the team after tonight's game and return to Western Illinois to attend to academic and athletic affairs there. Roycroft, who missed a month due to injury, could take over in the closer's role. Additional reinforcements to the pitching staff will be joining the team soon. The Larks currently have 14 pitchers, two short of full strength.