Pristine Mililani, with 56 towering pine trees in the sight line between the left-field and right-field foul lines, was an idyllic setting for a proper pitchers duel on Thursday.
There was the resilient Kaena Nistal, appropriately named with her unique combination of historic and breathtaking skill and power. Leilehua’s elite-level potential has been driven in part by Nistal’s performance.
There was the master of endurance, Misha Carreira, whose countenance rarely strays, always poised and arguably a marathon hurler with few peers statewide. Mililani saw the human pitching machine, Aubree Kim, graduate last year, but Carreira has carved out her own niche as the durable, rubber-armed ace of one of the top teams in the islands.
After both withstood difficulty in the first inning on Thursday, each settled in, and after three innings, the visiting Mules and host Trojans were knotted in a scoreless battle. It was entertaining enough. The game was moving swiftly.
There was, however, one undeniable factor. It wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t the audience. It was the strike and ball calls at home plate. It began with strikes called 2 to 4 inches off the outside edge for right-handed batters. That’s nothing unusual. But with the passage of time, the strike zone off that side of the plate extended to 6 inches, even 9 inches on a few pitches. It didn’t matter if Leilehua or Mililani was in the batter’s box. The vantage point from the scorers/press box, a good 10 feet above ground behind home plate, provided the perspective.
The extremely wide strike zone was almost completely consistent, which is why batters for both teams were wound up and almost frantically swinging at anything close from the first pitch on. It played a factor in the late-inning at-bats of Mililani’s Shannon Pascua-Stanton. She came through with a game-tying home run in the bottom of the seventh inning — on the first pitch from Nistal.
In the 10th, she went after a first pitch from crafty reliever Alyssa Abe, delivering a game-winning single to right field for an 8-7 victory.
Though teammate Maya Yoshiura came up big with a two-run homer in the fifth frame, Pascua-Stanton had struggled: swinging strikeout (2-2 count), walk (3-2 count, seven foul balls after the second strike), pop-up to shortstop. She thrived, however, in the clutch, in the late innings.
“It was an outside pitch,” she said of the game winner. “I was just trying to make contact. I knew we were going against the other team and the umpire.”
She didn’t mean that in a personal way. But when the zone is extended that far off home plate, good hitters make do, as in seven foul balls in a row. Survival.
“We told the kids they have to adjust,” Mililani coach Rose Antonio said. “Shannon made her adjustment and saw the ball well.”
To the credit of Antonio and Leilehua coach Stacy Araki, neither questioned balls and strikes with the umpire. At least, not audibly.
The pitchers’ duel didn’t last. Mililani scored once in the fourth, once in the fifth and three times in the sixth to open a 5-0 lead. Then something crazy happened: Leilehua exploded for a 3-run homer by pinch-hitter Kawena Kahana-Travis in the top of the seventh.
“I was just trying to help my team. I was hoping it would go over (the fence). I didn’t know it did until all our bench started going crazy,” said Kahana-Travis, whose slender build belies her hitting power.
“All our girls can hit the ball far,” Araki noted.
The game was still under control, though, for Carreira. However, Nistal kept hope alive with a single, Gianna Araki walked and Kamryn Kamakaiwi took her turn at the plate. She took a cut at a 1-0 pitch, sending it high over the center-field fence for another Leilehua three-run homer. Just like that, the Mules led 6-5. Jubilation ensued. All of this just five days after another pinch-hitter, Gwen Maeha, had blasted a two-run home run to lift the Mules over Pearl City.
“It was the most clutch hit I ever had. It was a rise ball. I caught it right before it started to rise,” Kamakaiwi said.
The sun shone brightly on the Mules. The intermittent wind that had blown from the outfield to the infield earlier had calmed. While the Mules celebrated near home plate, a warning came from the Leilehua bleachers: “The game ain’t over.”
True enough. Pascua-Stanton led off the bottom of the seventh, socking Nistal’s first pitch deep over center to tie the game.
Each team scored once in the eighth inning, and in the 10th, with Carreira in control on the mound, the Trojans got runners on base before Pascua-Stanton delivered again despite circumstances.
Even with the canyon-wide strike zone, the game went 10 innings, 15 runs were scored, Mililani spanked 16 hits, Leilehua tapped out nine, and three home runs were belted. All in a highly entertaining 3 hours and 21 minutes, just before sundown. Mililani (8-2) stayed on the tail of Campbell. Leilehua (6-4) missed a chance to enter the thick of the chase for a first-round playoff bye. It was a memorable afternoon on the diamond.
And the mighty pine trees smiled down upon thee.