By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
Baseball has been described as a game of inches.
The Hilo All-Stars would certainly agree with that statement after splitting a pair of one-run games Saturday in the PONY Baseball Broncos West Zone tournament. With a little luck — an extra hit or one less walk here or there, the Big Island team might have ended the long day with a perfect record.
Hilo dropped a heartbreaking 2-1 decision to Vacaville, Calif., on Saturday morning, with a bases-loaded walk forcing in the winning run. But the gutsy Big Islanders battled back to edge Bakersfield, Calif., 5-4 in the afternoon to remain alive in the tournament.
The eight-team, double-elimination tournament for players ages 11-12 is being played in Whittier, Calif.
The Hilo All-Stars (3-1) play unbeaten Vacaville (3-0) at 9:30 a.m. today in the championship game. The Big Islanders must beat Vacaville twice to claim the West Zone title and earn a berth in the World Series, which starts Aug. 1 in Los Alamitos, Calif.
Saturday’s Hilo-Vacaville matchup was a pitchers’ duel between Hilo’s Eric Riveira and Vacaville’s Titus Groenamig. And although each hurler struck out eight batters, a Riveira walk in the bottom of the fourth inning proved costly as Vacaville plated two runs in the inning to take a 2-1 lead.
In the top of the fourth, Hilo scored its lone run as Ryan Ragual reached base on a fielder’s choice and later scored on Logan Respicio’s RBI single off the hard-throwing Groenamig, an intimidating 6-foot-1 southpaw.
But in the bottom of the inning, Groenamig led off with a double and Vacaville followed with back-to-back singles to tie the score at 1-1. The California squad then loaded the bases before Riveira walked in the go-ahead run.
Hilo outhit Vacaville 6-4 but also had two errors compared to the host’s errorless game.
Groenamig earned the tough win while Riveira was tagged with the hardluck defeat.
“Their pitcher (Groenamig) pitched well,” said Hilo assistant coach Bully Ahuna. “He’s the top pitcher in the tournament, and he threw a lot of strikes. He mixed up his pitches and kept our hitters off-balance.
“But we had our chances. We loaded the bases a couple of times and just couldn’t get the big hit.”
Ahuna said Groenamig throws the ball around 70 miles per hour. “That’s pretty fast for this level,” the Hilo assistant coach said.
Still, Ahuna thought Hilo’s inability to hit at key times hurt.
“Right now in the tournament, our big hitters haven’t been hitting,” he said. “They’ve struggled and fallen behind in the count. It’s our little guys that have been getting the hits. Hopefully that will change for tomorrow (today).”
Ahuna, speaking for head coach Lenn Miyao, who was sick, praised Ragual’s strong pitching performance in the 5-4 win over Bakersfield.
“Ryan pitched a very good game,” Ahuna said. “Then Eric (Riveira) came in to finish. It was a good win, but we still didn’t hit like we can.”
Ragual pitched six solid innings and Riveira added a scoreless inning of relief to help Hilo prevail. Ragual got the win. Bakersfield starter Kaden Sheedy, who went five innings, took the loss.
The Big Islanders outhit Bakersfield 12-7. Jacob Igawa led Hilo with two hits, including a triple, and an RBI. Maui Ahuna had two hits and two RBIs while Reese Mondina added two hits for the Big Island team. James Malendez led Bakersfield with two hits and an RBI.
Hilo rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the fourth inning by scoring two runs. Then after Bakersfield plated a run in the bottom of the inning to tie it, the Big Islanders scored two runs in the fifth to go on top 5-3.
The California club added a solo run in the sixth to close to within 5-4. However, the determined Riveira came on to pitch the bottom of the seventh to earn the save.
Ahuna said Hilo will start Mondina on the mound today against Vacaville. Both Ragual and Riveira as well as Vacaville ace Groenamig are not available today, due to the 40-hour rest period for pitchers.
“If we can win the first game, both teams will be short on pitchers,” Ahuna said. “Then it’s going to come down to the team that hits should win. We’re hoping our bats pick up (today) and we start hitting like we can again.
“If we get to that second game, it’ll be pitching by committee for us.”
In Thursday’s opening round, Hilo overpowered Bakersfield, Calif., 15-6. On Friday, the Big Islanders topped Whittier, Calif. 2-1.
Saturday at Whittier, Calif.
Hilo 000 100 0 — 1 6 2
Vacaville 000 200 0 — 2 4 0
Hilo 001 220 0 — 5 12 1
Bakersfield 101 101 x — 4 7 4