Who knows what the competition and grind have in store for UH-Hilo baseball this season, not to mention Mother Nature.
It would be so Hilo to have a month’s worth of dry weather give way to rampant rain just as the Vulcans get set for opening day.
During an intrasquad scrimmage last weekend at their campus field it was sunny and clear, and coach Kallen Miyataki forecasted stable conditions ahead as he took stock of the several bright spots he sees his lineup.
“Casey, that’s him right there,” Miyataki said when, as if on cue, Casey Yamauchi pulled into second base after a hit. “He hasn’t stopped hitting.”
The freshmen from Waiakea’s quick emergence is perhaps the biggest piece of news to be produced since preseason camp began, though Miyataki said sophomore has created buzz as well.
“Our surprise might be our catcher,” Miyataki said. “He packs a punch. He’s our fourth batter.”
RJ Romo is an all-Pacific West Conference preseason selection intent on bettering his numbers from last season, Kobie Russell is a rare commodity in these parts and Kyle Yamada is the team’s “ironman.”
The sixth-year coach sees depth as well. When he looks around the field talking personnel, Miyataki usually mentions multiple players at each spot.
“This year, every position we’re competing,” he said. “So it’s not like before.”
During a 13-win turnaround last season, the Vuls seemed to buck a previous trend that usually saw them fall a day late and a dollar short.
They’d allow only two runs in the first game of a doubleheader, but only score one. They’d break out for eight runs in the nightcap, only to give up 10.
Things changed last season, Romo said, because, everyone seemed to take practice more seriously, and it showed in game situations.
“I think teams can get into bad habits of when they’re down, just staying down,” Romo said. “I think it’s different with our group of guys. We never think we’re out of a game, even if we’re losing late, we know we have a chance to score runs.”
The team needs to replace one of the program’s all-time best hitters, Phil Steering, who hit a school-record 10 home runs last season, but Miyataki thinks Romo, Kanbara and Russell can provide a formidable middle of the lineup.
The Vuls have had no chance to effectively recruit the six Big Islanders who have been selected in the MLB draft since 2013, so Russell represents a refreshing change. The former Waipahu High (Oahu) standout was selected in the 17th round of the draft by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017, and after taking a redshirt the left-handed hitting third baseman is primed to hit either third or fifth depending on the pitcher.
“He has a major league swing, and he told me he was happy to come here,” Miyataki said.
He expects to see an increase in power production from Kanbara (.239, 16 RBIs last season), who’s the team’s leading returning home run hitter with two last season, and Romo would like to see an uptick in his numbers as well after hitting .279 with a home run, 11 doubles and 23 RBIs.
“I hit behind Phil last season, so I got a lot of insight on him,” Romo said. “I think this year we’re definitely better offensively. I think depth-wise, top to bottom we’re stronger.”
Miyataki saw Yamauchi grow up through the youth baseball ranks and at Waiakea, and recently he’s seen Yamauchi sprout 3 inches to 5-foot-9.
He’ll bat second in the lineup can play a variety of positions – shortstop if Miyataki want to pencil in his best hitting lineup, or second or wherever needed in a defensive lineup.
“He’s a hard-working kid,” sophomore reliever John Kea said. “Great handle at the plate. He’s just well-rounded. Very respectful and a very respected player.”
Yamada (.294, seven steals) enters his fourth year as a starter and is Mr. Dependable as a leadoff-hitting center fielder. He’s one of the few Vulcans that may have to play every inning since backup Brett Komatsu, a fleet-footed Hilo High alum, is battling an injury.
The candidates for the corner outfield spots include junior transfer John Bicos and senior Kamalu Neal, who also can catch.
Romo can play multiple positions as well. He’ll be needed in left field until senior Dylan Sugimoto’s arm heals up, in which case Romo will man first base. Sugimoto is a two-year starter who hit .260 this year.
“If you’re not doing well, we have the depth to replace you,” Romo said. “I think that always should be there in the back of your head, that you can be replaced. I don’t think you should ever take that lightly.”
Senior Mana Manago started 42 games at second base last season and hit .265 with 21 runs scored, and true freshman Nick Lugo could start a shortstop, though senior Mikey Rita is option as well.
Among those expected to redshirt this season is Waiakea grad Trayden Tamiya.
“I don’t know what the other teams are like, but I know for us, from when we started to now, we’re a lot better,” Miyataki said. “We look good, but until we start competing, we don’t know.”