Three runs in the nick of time, and the Damien Monarchs are defying all doubters.
Of course, not a lot of folks thought Damien would be in this position. The Monarchs finished second to St. Francis in the ILH Division II regular season, which meant the Saints got a favorable status in the postseason. Damien not only had to win the ILH D-II tournament, but would have to win two games in a row against St. Francis to claim the league title.
St. Francis, earning that regular-season crown, needed to beat St. Francis just once. Pressure? It seemed to be on the Saints more than the Monarchs in the past week. The latest chapter is a remarkable 9-7 comeback win by Damien on Tuesday at Hans L’Orange Park that culminated with a bizarre throwing error by the Saints on a Monarchs sacrifice bunt that allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to score. Bizarre because on the defensive rotation, nobody covered first base and the throw bounced and bounced and bounced down the line — a rather heartbreaking way to lose the lead.
While the Saints committed five errors and had disagreement on the diamond — a third-base coach was peeved when the dugout called for a steal attempt of third base during the second inning — it was Damien that was steadier with two errors. Akila Arecchi was one of many Monarchs who played at an elite level. The second baseman batted 4-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored.
But what happens when underdog status dissipates? When the teams meet on Thursday for the title, it’s one shot and, for the loser, the end of the season while the winner advances to the D-II state tourney.
Damien coach Timo Donahue isn’t swayed by the notion that the underdog role matters at this point.
“We found a combination we like, having quality at-bats. It’s contagious. That gets us into the title game. Throughout the year, these guys have been playing one game at a time, move on to the the game, the next at-bat,” Donahue said.
St. Francis will have ace Jared Yara on the mound, hoping he is back in elite form. Yara struggled some in the loss to Damien back on Saturday, striking out four and walking six in 4 1/3 innings.
“We tip our caps to Damien. They earned the win,” Saints coach Kip Akana said on Tuesday. “This situation, they know they’ll get our best and we knew we’ll get their best. We’ll have our ace, Yara, and they’ll have (Javin) Cortez.”
Tuesday’s battle was epic, a wild, see-saw battle with a combined 16 hits, 17 walks and, just for good measure, five hit batters.
J.P. Tilley led the game off with a walk and came home on a one-out double to left by Makana Poole. Damien put two runners on base in the bottom of the first, stranding both. Then St. Francis added two runs in the top of the second. Reece Kadota led off with a walk, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Chase Akana and scored on a single by Tilley. That chased starter Milton Gainey off the mound, replaced by Justin Nalaielua.
Tilley stole second base, and a moment later, Bubba Akana’s foul pop was dropped by Damien catcher Kana Schuman. Akana then singled to left, scoring Tilley for a 3-0 lead. Akana was thrown out on a steal attempt.
Damien stranded a runner in scoring position in the second inning, but scored twice in the third. Arecchi led off with a single, and the ball was misplayed by the right fielder, Kadota. When Kadota’s throw to the infield misfired, Arecchi rounded third base and scored his team’s first run. Donahue walked with one out, later advancing to second when shortstop Bubba Akana hauled in a pop-up and threw wildly to first base. Kaeo then singled to right on an 0-2 pitch, scoring Donahue.
St. Francis regained momentum in the top of the fourth with two runs. Chase Akana walked with one out, Bubba Akana walked with two outs, and Makana Poole ripped a double to left, plating both runners to stretch the margin to 5-2.
Damien rallied for three runs in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game. With two outs, Arecchi singled and scored on Mana Cameron’s triple to right center. Donahue followed with a double to left, plating Cameron. Jayden Cabbab then singled to left, bringing Donahue home.
The Saints took advantage of two errors to score twice in the top of the fifth. Zach Alcos singled and advanced to second base on an error by the left fielder, Arecchi. Perry’s ground ball to second base was muffed by Kajiwara, allowing Alcos to score. After Reece Kadota singled, Kajiwara took over on the mound.
Tilley was hit by pitch to load the bases with two outs, and then Kajiwara hit Bubba Akana, forcing in Perry from third. That made it 7-5 in St. Francis’ favor.
Damien tacked on a single run in the bottom of the fifth with two outs. Pinch hitter Chayne Wayton’s grounder to third was muffed by Poole, and after Kajiwara walked on a full-count pitch, Arecchi singled the other way to left, bringing Schuman home and cutting the deficit to one run.
St. Francis, which finished with 10 runners left on base, got one-out walks by Shawn Ellis and Alcos in the top of the sixth, but Perry grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat.
Damien then scored three times to take a 9-7 lead going after six frames. In the top of the seventh. Kajiwara walked Kadota, and then hit pinch hitter Deven Rita. He then struck out Tilley and got Bubba Akana to ground into a 5-4-3 double play, ending the game.