The chase for the one and only automatic state-tourney berth in the regular season for the Interscholastic League of Honolulu is turning into a two-team race.
Just don’t say it to the Punahou Buffanblu and ‘Iolani Raiders. Neither team is willing to call it that, even though they are the only unbeaten teams in the chase. Punahou kept it close on Saturday with a 14-2 rout of Kamehameha at sizzling-hot Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park. Punahou is now 5-0 in league play, a half-game behind ‘Iolani (6-0).
The Buffanblu got a solid performance from right-hander Matt McConnell, who struck out seven and walked one in four innings. He gave up two runs and bore down when he struggled a bit in the bottom of the third inning.
That’s just having focus and commitment,” Punahou coach Keenan Sue said. “We talked about competing on every pitch. Just winning the pitch. If you throw a great pitch, so what. Win the next pitch.
Moments later, Punahou broke the game wide open with nine runs in the top of the fourth. With his team sending 14 batters to the plate, McConnell had to stay loose. He got up to throw twice, then returned to the diamond and struck out the side. He threw 82 pitches before yielding to Shiya Matsushita, who threw a scoreless inning in the fifth as Punahou won by TKO.
“We tell (our pitchers), you’re going to have probably 20 percent of your starters where you’re on fire,” Sue said. “Then 20 percent where you’re terrible. The rest of them, 60 percent, your going to have to battle, right? You don’t have your ‘A’ game, you’re going to have to battle with your B or C game.”
Like rival ‘Iolani, the Buffanblu have shown tremendous patience at the plate so far in league play. Both of Jake Tsukada’s hits — the bases-loaded triple and a two-run single — were with two-strike counts. The first was an 0-2 count. The second was 1-2.
“If you’re big and strong, and you can hit the ball in the gap and hit it out of the park, then I think you should do that. But I think most of our guys are not capable of doing that on a regular basis, so we just need to put the ball in play and have quality at-bats. They’ve been doing a really good job with that,” Sue said.
Tsukada bats left-handed and seems to squeeze out every last drop of each at-bat.
“Some guys can just hit. We just try to stay out of his way,” Sue noted. “We only talk to Jake about approach. We don’t work with his mechanics, and a lot of these guys, we don’t work on their mechanics during the year. They’ve got to dance with who they brought. We work on approach and that’s where we spend most of our time. Jake did a great job. And his next at-bat, he hit a low two-strike curve up the middle and we scored. There’s not many high school hitters who are refined enough to stay through that and put a barrel on it and Jake’s one of those guys. We’re very lucky to have him. He works his tail off and he prepares properly, and that gives him the confidence he needs to succeed.”
Punahou and ‘Iolani are in lofty positions, but only the first-place team at the end of the regular season will earn that automatic state berth. After that, anything can happen in the ILH double-elimination playoff tournament, even with two more state berths available.
“We try to be grateful for everything, but entitled to nothing. If we get too far ahead of ourselves and start thinking about that and we don’t take care of the next day of practice and the next day in front of us, we’re not going to be present and giving our best,” Sue said.
What’s next is practice on Monday, and then a battle with Maryknoll on Tuesday at Ala Wai Community Park. Former Punahou coach Eric Kadooka has lit a fire under the Spartans squad.
“Eric is a friend and a mentor and he does an incredible job there. Justice Yamashita is their ace and we’ll probably see Justice,” Sue said. “Anytime he throws, it’s going to be a ball game. We’ve got to bear down. They’re going to come to play. We’re going to treat it like it’s the World Series.”
Back to Punahou-Kamehameha. It was close until the top of the fourth, when the Buffanblu basically walked to victory.
Kamehameha starter Christian DeJesus fanned Makana Murashige to begin the top of the fourth, but walked Cody Hirano. Matt Nishimura reached base on a fielding error at shortstop by Keala Alcon.
With new pitcher Seth Tuasivi on the mound, Hirano and Nishimura executed a double steal. Kalae Harrison then walked to load the bases. With Kirk Terada-Herzer at the plate, Hirano scored on a passed ball for a 5-0 Buffanblu lead.
DeJesus then plunked Terada-Herzer to re-load the bases. Tsukada then stepped in and, with a 1-2 count, lined a single to center, scoring Nishimura and Harrison. The ball was muffed by Kade Yasui, allowing the runners to advance.
Aaron Tom, Punahou’s cleanup hitter, was intentionally walked to load the sacks, but Eldredge drew his second walk of the game, forcing Terada-Herzer in from third base, opening Punahou’s lead to 8-2.
With Kade Morihara standing in the box against new pitcher Dylan Nakahara, Tsukada raced home from third on a wild pitch. Morihara then cracked a double to left-center, plating Tom and Eldredge for an 11-2 lead.
After Murashige walked, Kala‘e Holt took the mound and walked Hirano. After Nishimura grounded into a forceout, Harrison’s hard infield single brought Murashige home with Punahou’s final run of the fourth inning. The Buffanblu led 13-2 going into the bottom of the frame.
At Central Oahu Regional Park
Punahou (13-1-1, 5-0) 004 91 — 14 6 0
Kamehameha (9-4, 4-2) 002 00 — 2 5 3
Matt McConnell, Shiya Matsushita (5) and Matt Nishimura. Christian DeJesus, Seth Tuasivi (4), Dylan Nakahara (4), Kala‘e Holt (4), Casey Kitagawa (5) and Vince Venenciano. W—McConnell. L—DeJesus.
Leading hitters—Punahou: Jake Tsukada 2-4, 5 RBIs, 2 runs, triple; Kade Morihara 2-3, 2 RBIs, run, double; Kala‘e Harrison 1-2, RBI, 2 runs, BB, HBP; Aaron Tom 1-3, 2 runs, double; Koa Eldredge 1-2, RBI, run, 2 BB. Kamehameha: Hanu Racoma 2-2 Javyn Pimental 1-2, RBI, Kaeden Shim 1-3, run.