It was a game where coaches on each side encouraged their teams by echoing the same rallying cry – “We aren’t done yet” – and they were right.
So back and forth they went. Hilo opened up a big lead, only to see Maui chip away and forge in front. Hilo had a quick answer, striking back to go ahead.
As Maui came to plate in the bottom of the seventh, it seemed like the classic case of a game where neither team deserved to lose – especially not like this: Maui walked off with the state Little League Intermediate (ages 11-13) championship Monday on a balk call, winning 9-8 victory at Walter Victor complex.
Hilo took advantage of a balk in the sixth to reclaim the lead, but coach Koa Marzo said the game-ending balk call – with two on and one out – was “really unfortunate.”
When delivering from the stretch, pitchers must set by coming to a complete stop before throwing home.
“There were 1,000 balks on the field today, they could have let the kids play it out,” he said.
Unfortunately, now both teams are done.
Normally Maui would advance to a mainland regional, but they’ll stay home because Little League International canceled all baseball regionals and World Series this year with the exception of the Majors (11-12) division
That did little to dampen the Maui’s youngsters’ celebration. They paraded their state title banner around the outfield fence for family and friends to see, and then outside the gate fans shook leaves and set up a tunnel for the team to run under.
“Hats off to the other team for their battle, because they really came out hard,” Maui coach Marshall Minardo said, “but our boys stuck with it to survive the storm.
“Nobody gave up.”
Considering Maui had a game to play with, it easily could have.
Hilo looked well on its way to forcing a winner-take-all second game, scoring five times in the third to take a 6-0 lead in back of Koa Marzo Jr., who struck out seven and finished with three hits, a double and three runs scored.
Coach Marzo said he looked forward to getting this team together next year to make another run in the Juniors (13-14) division.
“I told them we work hard so we don’t ever have to feel like we did after (this loss),” he said.
Reliever Moku Kokubun retired the side in order in the sixth after Hilo went ahead 8-7 on MJ Ellazar’s run-scoring single and the balk, which scored Kalai Nobriga. But after Kokubun got the first out of the seventh, trouble struck courtesy of an error, Kamahao Akima’s infield hit and Eli Nouchi’s game-tying RBI single on a two-strike pitch.
Around the time a magnitude-5.2 earthquake struck on the Hamakua Coast, Coach Marzo joked that a tremor caused his pitcher to make it look like he balked.
“We came to play,” he said. “That’s the game we usually play, strong pitching, tough defense and out bats were working.”
Kaikoa Nobriga and Kokubun each drilled RBI doubles in the third, and Hunter Yamamoto scratched out an infield hit to bring in a run. Ellazar finished with three hits, including a run-scoring single in the first.
Hilo left the bases loaded in the top of fourth, and that proved costly when Kaden Anderson gave Maui its first hit with a double to open the bottom of the fourth. Kaikanoa Ka’ahanui, the next batter, doubled to left and came all the way around to score after a throwing error on the play.
In the fifth, Maui claimed its first lead with a five-run rally: Anderson brought in two with a double to right, Ka’ahanui tied with it with two-run single to right and Kip Watanabe – who was at the plate for the game-ending balk – came through with a clutch hit to make it 7-6.
Justice Wakamatsu, his team’s third pitcher, went three innings to earn the win. Minardo said he still had four or five pitches saved up in case Maui was forced to a second game Monday. His pitching depth is generated, he said, by playing college-style series on Maui, where his teams to play the same club three times and shuffle through eight to nine arms.
“Hats off to the boys, they locked it down,” he said. “Hard work pays off.”