WAILUKU — It was, perhaps, the hidden-ball trick heard around the world.
Or, at least, Wailuku. In a game that featured a recurring leg cramp to a key player, a flying bat and loosey-goosey baserunning tactics all in the name of eking out just one more valuable run, it was the mindcraft of an infielder that helped save the night for Kailua.
The Surfriders’ 10-1 win over Maui in the opening round of the Wally Yonamine Foundation/HHSAA Baseball State Championships took nine innings to decide, but for Saber fans, it was epic heartbreak. For Kailua fans, it was an often gut-wrenching novel, merciless to the end, and before Kailua’s onslaught of nine runs in the ninth frame, a near, very near loss.
But it was also the guile of third baseman Jalen Ah Yat that prevented a loss. A moment after Maui had loaded the bases with a bunt single, Ah Yat put his experience — and knowledge learned from an older sibling — to work in the most crucial moment of the game.
No outs. Kailua clinging to a 1-0 lead, bottom of the seventh. After a bunt single by Maui, the bases were loaded.
“Our first baseman, Mikey Hanano, had the ball,” Ah Yat said. “I could tell all of the (Maui) coaches were hyped up with the players and nobody was really paying attention to me. It was the perfect time to pull it. Growing up, my oldest brother Noah, when I was in eighth grade or so, he would always do it during games and I always thought it was cool watching that.”
Ah Yat told pitcher Bryson Ewaliko to stay off the mound, which would keep the ball alive.
“He was like, ‘OK.’ He had an idea of what was going on,” Ah Yat said.
“I knew what was happening, so I stayed off the mound and Jalen did what he had to do,” Ewaliko said.
Ah Yat’s improvised game plan was Oscar-worthy.
“I walked the whole way (from first base to third base) to make it try and seem like we were losing the momentum. I just waited for the kid (baserunner Corey Shirota) to come off. The umpire wasn’t really paying attention to me, so I kind of had to yell to get his attention. I just yelled, ‘Ump!’ He looked at me and right when he did, I tagged (Shirota) and I showed him the ball. He was just waiting. It seemed the coach was telling him to just wait. They started getting fired up and I tagged him.”
Kailua coach Corey Ishigo saw something that didn’t surprise him.
“Our baseball players love to play the game and they figure out ways to win, whatever it takes, you know. We’re smart. It doesn’t show all the time, but they know what they’re doing,” Ishigo said. “This year, we didn’t practice it because we don’t have a field to practice on. It just happened and we knew he had the ball, and we were just hoping nobody would call time in that situation. Bryson’s smart enough, too. Most pitchers wouldn’t know what the rule is, but our guys, we feel confident.”
After the hidden-ball trick by Ah Yat, Ewaliko’s right calf cramped up and he hit the ground. He then struck out one batter, then walked another, allowing Maui to tie the game at 1. The count was 3-2 on pinch hitter Kobe Galinato when Ewaliko’s fastball hit the mitt of catcher Kalua Neves. For a second, maybe two, there was no call. Then the home plate umpire called strike, ending the inning. The ball was on the cusp, the edge of the lower part of the strike zone. Had it been called a ball, Galinato would have walked and Maui would have won the game.
“He called it right away. We heard him verbally call it,” Ishigo said. “We knew that was a strike. Bryson, his mind is tough. His heart is strong. We live and die with him just like all these seniors here. We live and die with what we got.”
Instead, with the hidden-ball trick, Kailua managed to get into extra innings. Ewaliko came through with an RBI single to give his team the lead in the top of the ninth. That triggered a nine-run avalanche, and an epic state-tournament tug-of-war suddenly turned into a blowout.
“I told my coaches, this is for you guys,” Ewaliko said.
It was the strangest, occasionally most bizarre opening-round game in recent memory. Each team kept its ace pitcher on the bench, but had to use them — Aizeah Lakalaka of Maui, Ewaliko of Kailua — by the sixth inning.
“(Lakalaka) pitched very well today. Props to him,” Ewaliko said.
“Bryson’s will is there all the time, day in and day out. After he pitches, he’s doing his workout even if it’s storming at the school,” Ishigo said. “There’s no way he wasn’t going to come through for his team.”
The drama intensified from there with the hidden-ball trick, the leg cramp, a flying bat and loosey-goosey baserunning tactics.
>> Cramp treatment
After the game, Coach Corey Ishigo asked one of the team parents to pick up Keltic Salt from Whole Foods.
“Instead of drinking Gatorade with all the sugar, we’re just putting the Keltic Salt and the electrolytes back in our bodies,” Ishigo said. “We just throw a pinch in every body and they’ll drink it, and it’ll usually help with the cramping.”
Ishigo and his staff were cautious about Ewaliko’s situation.
“More so than winning and losing, this game was, if Bryson’s mechanics were off with the leg cramps, I would have pulled him because his future is much brighter than a high school state-tournament game,” Ishigo said. “There’s no way he wanted to come out. He said, ‘I got this.’ That’s usually his words when I go to the mound.”
>> Flying bat
During Ewaliko’s at-bat in the top of the seventh, he signaled for a timeout, but Lakalaka delivered his pitch. Ewaliko singled to left and as he ran to first, flung the bat back high and toward his dugout. It got within range of the home-plate umpire, incurring some heckling and boos from Maui fans.
“I apologized to him,” Ewaliko said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just hyped in the moment.”
>> Duck, duck, goose
Kailua was clinging to a 1-0 lead — Hanano had scored on a wild pitch in the second inning — when one of the most blatantly daring attempts to score on sheer baserunning-in-a-pickle moments happened. In the fifth, the count was 2-0 with the bases loaded, two outs. The left-handed Lakalaka entered the game, replacing starter Taelen Bates. Lakalaka’s talent is immediately effective. He got two strikes on the lefty-hitting Hanano. Then Matthew Kaleiohi floated off first base, trying to get Lakalaka to make a bad decision. It backfired on Kailua with a 1-4-5-6 putout, with the shortstop, Tyrell Ruiz, applying the tag on Hanano at second base for the final out of the inning.
After the teams returned to their dugouts, Ishigo appeared to ask the home plate umpire if the pitcher, Lakalaka, had balked. The answer was no.
In the end, Maui’s young team — only two starters are seniors, and there are two freshmen starters — took home a heartbreaking loss. The capacity crowd at Iron Maehara, mostly Maui fans dressed in blue, had to wonder, ‘What if?’ Kailua (15-7-2 overall) will have to piece together a pitching game plan for third-seeded Hilo in a 1:30 p.m. matchup on Thursday. Maybe, after spending a whole bunch of pitches and innings on two reliable pitchers today — Shai Lolo-Tamashiro went five innings, Ewaliko went two — there might not be enough juice left from the staff, especially after a 3-hour, 38-minute game that ended 15 hours before the next contest.
But Ah Yat came up with a brilliant tactic in the midst of the battlefield. He also pitched the final two innings, and for the first time, maybe, in Hawaii high school baseball history, a player who pulled off a game-saving hidden-ball trick also was the winning pitcher of an extra-inning game.
“I just felt like I needed to help the team in a certain way and I just thought about it,” he said. “It wouldn’t hurt if we tried, so I just tried it.”
Ewaliko promised Kailua fans one thing.
“We’re bringing back the koa head (trophy),” he said. “We love you guys.”