Even with one of the oddest comebacks in state-tournament baseball history, the Division II state title game between Kauai and Damien was a classic.
Good defense. Kauai turned three double plays in the first three innings. Good pitching. Red Raiders pitchers Jacob Borrero and Keoua Sibayan kept a hot Damien attack — 25 runs in two earlier tourney games — relatively subdued.
In the end, Kauai’s 5-4 comeback win, which included two runs in the top of the seventh inning, was a clutch head-scratcher. Particularly for fans who aren’t familiar with rules about helmets and players who spike them.
When Borrero singled in the seventh to bring home the tying run, his helmet went airborne as he slid head-first into first base. But a moment later, as he laid on the ground, Borrero inexplicably spiked his helmet. It was pure overexcitement, the sophomore said.
At that point, it appeared that the out hand gesture had been made by the umpire, and Damien players instinctively began to celebrate near the mound. Damien had won 4-3… or did the run count? Or was there more?
For a good five minutes, that play turned Borrero into the third out of the inning as Kauai fans who know the rule book well screamed in opposition. There is no such rule, at least not these days. Borrero could have saved everyone the mystery, but he got caught up in the adrenaline and excitement.
“They hype really got to me. I usually don’t show my emotions on the field,” he said.
Once the dust settled, once Kauai’s defense was told to go back to the dugout, once the Red Raiders were told to put their runners back on third and first bases, all was right in the baseball universe. At least for Kauai. It was still a 4-all game. Damien (17-6), which had been one out away from winning the state title, just needed a third out to end Kauai’s half of the inning, and then go into the bottom of the frame with a chance to win the game.
Instead, well, it was gut-wrenching. First baseman Jayden Cabbab muffed a ground ball by Skyler Sadora, everyone was safe and Sam Nakata stepped on home plate with the go-ahead run for Kauai.
“It’s heartbreaking, knowing that we were one out away,” sophomore second baseman/pitcher Kaysen Kajiwara said.
“We were so close,” freshman shortstop Jordan Donahue said. “Adversity will make us stronger next year. We’re going to come back bigger and stronger. It’s going to be tough to replace Javin (Cortez) and Jayden.”
While Kauai celebrated its first D-II state title since 2011, the Monarchs walked away with a taste of the bittersweet tinge. A 10-game win streak, full of minor miracles working through the ILH playoff tournament, was and is memorable.
“I want them to remember that one loss doesn’t diminish what we did,” Monarchs coach Timo Donahue said. “Kauai plays sound baseball. We made more mistakes than they did.”
Damien’s win streak had the elements of what makes a good team great: fundamentals.
“I think some guys got out of our approach, swinging at pitches they normally don’t,” Donahue said. “It’s about being mentally tough.”
For six innings, the Monarchs had every reason to believe this was a year of championship destiny.
Damien loaded the sacks in the bottom of the first on a leadoff double by Akila Arecchi, a single by Kaimana Cameron and a walk by Donahue. But Cabbab struck out looking on a curve ball by Borrero, and Shiloh Kaeo grounded into a 1-2-3 double play to end the threat.
The Red Raiders got on the scoreboard first in the top of the second inning against Cortez, who struck out four and walked four, allowing four earned runs and seven hits in seven innings. Sadder led off with a double to the right-field corner, advanced to third base on a sacrifice bunt by Ricky Rego and scored on Matthew Panit’s grounder to second.
In the top of the third, Kauai tacked on two more runs for a 3-0 lead. Oshima singled with one out, stole second base, and slid safely into third base on Nakata’s fielder’s choice grounder to shortstop. Donahue’s throw to third was too late to get Oshima. After Borrero’s sacrifice bunt moved Nakata to second base, Sadora drilled a two-out double to left-center, scoring Oshima and Nakata.
Damien’s bats came alive in the bottom of the fourth. Kaeo walked with two outs and scored on a double to left by Pomai Kim. Paul Mezurashi (3-for-3) followed with a double to left, plating Kim with Damien’s second run.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Monarchs tied the game at 3. Kajiwara singled and Arecchi reached base on a bunt single. The awkward lob by the pitcher, Borrero, caromed off the first baseman, Nakata, and Kajiwara wheeled into third base. Cameron’s sacrifice fly to right scored Kajiwara.
Then came the sixth, when Damien seized the lead. Kaeo singled to left, pinch runner Dylan Tapat advanced to second base on Kim’s sacrifice bunt, and Tapat scored on a triple to right-center by Mezurashi for a 5-4 Monarchs’ lead.
With one out and Mezurashi standing on third base, pinch hitter Chayne Wayton flew out to left and Kajiwara struck out swinging.
That set the stage for the wacky seventh inning.
“We did well. We executed our plays pretty well. We saw Damien in preseason and they crush the ball. Their coach did a helluva job,” Ibia said. “The game could’ve gone either way.”
Now, Kauai (13-3) and its very young roster have to wonder what the future holds. Damien will rebound and compete again next year for the ILH D-II title. Perhaps the state crown, too. Kauai? The KIF is never a cinch, but their talent, composure and youth are all pluses.
Borrero and Christian Manera, who fired nine shutout innings against top-seeded Kamehameha-Hawaii and Molokai, will be back next season. Manera is only a junior.
Watching two neighbor-island teams play for the Division I championship — BIIF runner-up Waiakea and MIL runner-up Maui — might whet Kauai’s appetite for more. What if Kauai played one of those two teams today?
“That would be a good game,” Borrero said, well aware that Kauai was a force in Division I some years back with a fellow named Tyler Yates as their ace.
The Red Raiders aren’t asking to move into D-I, though coach Hank Ibia has talked openly about the possibility.
“Why not have the KIF champion enter the D-I (state tournament) and the other teams play for a D-II berth,” he asked.
Manera, who had a big catch to end the fourth inning after scrambling after deep hits in left field, was relieved. He did his best work on the mound, fanning four, walking one and permitting just one unearned run in his efforts against Ks-Hawaii and Molokai.
“There’s no telling the future,” Manera said. “But we can definitely compete with the best.”
For Ibia, the longtime coach, thoughts were on Uncle Pete Rabasa as the Red Raiders and their fans celebrated after the title win.
“Uncle Pete, we was pretty close. He was my mom’s brother, played football at Kauai, offensive guard. He supported Kauai High School. He used to cook for me and all our kids at his house,” Ibia said, pointing to his jersey number. “I traded in my number (9) for his (27) after he passed away. We dedicated this season to Uncle Pete. This championship is for him.”