State AJA baseball: Hawaii gains chance to end title drought

It has been 84 years of history, and counting, for the Americans of Japanese Ancestry baseball tournament in Hawaii, and records show every team has had its championships.

Just not very often.

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In 2014, Kauai claimed the title, six years after Maui won the four-team tournament, and the Big Island? There was a time in the 1970s and ‘80s that the Hawaii teams were tough on the competition, winning seven times from 1974-81, but it has been 27 years since the island brought home a championship, back in 1992.

Sunday brings another opportunity when Hawaii meets Oahu at 11:30 a.m. at Wong Stadium, following the 9 a.m. consolation game between Kauai and Maui.

The Big Island squad advanced Saturday with a convincing 7-1 victory over Kauai, taking advantage of some veteran experience on the mound and at the plate.

Coach Chad Canda, an assistant at Hilo High School during the scholastic season, may try some more old age and treachery in the championship game in hopes of snapping that 27-year empty streak after two of the older players on squad pointed the way Saturday.

The winning pitcher, 30-year-old Aaron Correa, scattered eight hits along the way with five strikeouts against just one base on balls. and 33-year-old Avery Kagawa did the rest of the damage with two doubles, a single, walk and four runs batted in.

“For me,” said Correa, a Kamehameha-Hawaii grad, “it was a team effort all the way. When I pitch I try to put the ball in play and let my defense handle the rest and that’s pretty much what happened. We played good defense and that kept us from getting in too much trouble.”

Five of Kauai’s hits came from its Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters, but all of that added up to just one run, around an error, in the sixth inning. Correa helped his cause in a big way by recording four of his strikeouts in those three spots in the order.

“When we play defensively sound baseball like we did today, we give ourselves a chance to win games,” said Canda, “that’s what I like to see whenever, wherever we play.

“(Sunday), we may have to try to outsmart them or something,” he said. “Those (Oahu) guys play all year round and they have a league with eight teams — we have three teams here — but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull something out on them.”

He was asked if that means throwing someone with a healthy diet of off-speed pitches, maybe in the 70 mph range.

“Oh yeah,” Canda said, “we might find someone who can throw a few in the 30s, if that helps.”

Hawaii got what it needed in the first inning when it sent all nine batters to the plate and opened with a double by Justin Kekaualua, a single by Shannon Camero and then back-to-back doubles from Keola McCallum and Kagawa, the latter driving in two of the four runs.

Kagawa got two more RBIs in the three-run fourth when Kekaualua and McCallum each singled, moved up on an infield out and then Kagawa had the big swing of the day on a rocket shot that carried to deep centerfield and touched earth again on a short hop to the 400-foot fence.

“Old guys prevailed,” laughed Kagawa, a Waiakea High School grad. “A bunch of us still get together and practice a couple hours every week so it’s not like we don’t do anything the rest of the year.

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“My approach (at the plate), is pretty simple,” he said. “It doesn’t get too complicated, it’s see strikes, hit strikes and that’s about it.”

They’ll try to keep it simple one more time Sunday to see if they can make a repeat performance as champions, 27 years later.