By KEVIN JAKAHI
At least now, the UH-Hilo baseball team will have a fighting chance with the return to health of four important starters against Hawaii Pacific.
The Vulcans (12-8) and Sharks (8-12) play at 6 p.m. Friday at Les Murakami Stadium. UHH needs just one win to claim the Hawaii pod automatic qualifier to the PacWest pod series, scheduled May 20-22 at Azusa Pacific.
If the Sharks, who are on a four-game winning streak, win then the two keep playing. There are doubleheaders at noon Saturday and at 11 a.m. Sunday, if necessary.
The Vulcans welcome back catcher Jaryn Kanbara, first baseman Kobie Russell, second baseman Lawson Faria, and outfielder John Bicos.
Kanbara’s return is the most important because the Sharks have been going crazy on the bases against Teppei Fukuda, who has a much weaker arm.
The Sharks are 24 of 28 in steal attempts, an 86 percent success rate. In the last four games, HPU went 5 of 6 on steal attempts.
If a gambler had that type of odds in Las Vegas, he’d be a millionaire many times over.
Fukuda has a .970 fielding percentage and three passed balls in 11 games.
Kanbara has a .984 fielding percentage and one passed ball in eight games. He’s thrown out 4 of 10 runners trying to steal.
The offense should get an upgrade with the return of Faria (.290 batting average in 11 games), a more productive bat over his replacement Gaven Palagonia (.200 in 15 games).
Russell (.205 in 13 games) and Bicos (.159 in 16 games) are struggling, but both are experienced hitters.
“The team health is a lot better,” coach Kallen Miyataki said. “That should make a lot of difference.”
Asked if there’s any concern about losing five straight, Miyataki gave a response that showed why he stopped UHH’s NCAA record 26-year losing skid.
“It’s about being positive about the situation. Learning and striving to be positive was probably the hardest thing to change over the years,” he said. “Non-verbal action is important. We work on what needs to be accomplished. Negative response will bring us down and eventually destroy us.”
Obviously, Miyataki changed the program’s mindset and culture, getting the buy-in from players to work hard, practice hard, play hard and think team first, but it also greatly helps to recruit talent.
It doesn’t take much detective work to know that the last time the Vulcans beat the Sharks was April 30 with ace Kyle Alcorn on the mound at UHH’s campus field.
The redshirt junior left-hander pitched 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball in a 6-4 victory. Alcorn (3-2, 2.73 ERA in five starts) did his job that day, keeping his team in the game until the offense could come around with a three-run fifth to take the lead.
“Alcorn is our No. 1. He’s a grinder,” Miyataki said. “If he’s on, good things will happen. If he’s off, we need to survive until we get to the fifth inning. I believe in our back-end pitching.
“They will have to attack and let things fall however they fall. I’m all good if they play aggressively. I don’t want players to second guess themselves.”
OK, that’s the good news with Alcorn, who greatly increases UHH’s odds of winning.
Junior left-hander Cameron Scudder, the No. 2 pitcher, is still out. Scudder (0-1, 2.61 ERA in two starts) can shut down HPU’s running game by himself because he’s got a lethal pickoff move.
The Vuls still have reliable pitchers in Christian Sadler (3-0, 2.37 ERA), who threw a one-hitter against HPU, and Aaron Davies (0-0, 4.11 ERA), who pitched five innings of three-run ball in a no-decision against HPU in his last start.
“We have others that we count on. They are all different and bring something different to the mound,” Miyataki said. “Again, the least mistakes and who gets the breaks will come out on top. Both teams have seen each other 20 times.
“Execution will be the key and timely hitting and pitching. We are a lot more confident having the four back in our lineup. We need to be better at our approaches, to hit, field pitch, every facet of the game. Mind has a lot to do with it.”
Miyataki noted that his friend and judo sensei Curtis Nishioka, father of Keenan (UHH baseball) and Chloe (UHH soccer), offered sound advice.
“Sensei Curtis Nishioka gave me three words that have enabled us to get to this point, preparation, opportunity, and success,” Miyataki said. “Those words have always been with me. How we prepare for the opportunity and how we handle ourselves is the success. Someone will win but how we go about things is very important. We must control the controllable. What we cannot control we must deal with and overcome.”
That sounds like a very wise Zen strategy. Here’s something Phil Jackson might whisper: Win one and let’s go to the postseason.