By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Joey Estrella calls the decision bittersweet.
But the more he goes through the preparations for his 37th and final season at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, he’s also come to one reassuring realization: It’s time.
“The more I start to do this, the more I look to the future,” said Estrella, who announced his retirement last month. “Time for a change for me and time for a change for the program.
“There are a lot of changes going on at the university and in baseball. The program needs a new direction. A new face.”
The Vulcans begin the final chapter under the only coach the program has ever known with a 4 p.m. doubleheader today against Augustana (S.D.) at Wong Stadium.
And don’t expect any “Win one for Joey” speeches from Estrella. Not today, and certainly not on Senior Day. He’d prefer the focus remain on his players all season long.
“Rather not use it as motivation,” he said. “I’d rather this team motivate itself. I’ve had my time.”
And though his 648-897-5 record doesn’t faze him one bit — “This program has been more than about just baseball,” Estrella said. “It’s been about enriching the college experience.” — the goal is to go out with a .500 record.
The Vulcans lack size and power hitters, senior shortstop John Abreu is the leading returning home run hitter with two, so UHH will feature more small-ball and try to string together hits as it tries to improve upon a 15-33 record last season. Pitchers will be tasked with throwing to contact and relying on their defense and the hitters’ nightmare that is Wong Stadium.
“Good overall team speed, good defense,” Estrella said. “Right now, it’s hard to tell, but I think once the season starts, we’re going to hit the ball. I really do.
The new faces include three homegrown talents in freshmen Korin Medeiros (Waiakea High) and Keenan Nishioka (Hilo), as well as junior college transfer Ryan Fukunaga (Hilo). All will see time in the lineup and play the infield, and Nishioka earned a starting job at first base with a strong performance in the fall.
“Of all the players we brought in, Keenan’s been a very pleasant surprise,” Estrella said.
There are plenty of experienced options in the outfield.
Senior center fielder Brad Fairweather (.255 average, seven steals last season), senior left fielder Zachary Hamasaki (.292 in 2011) and junior right fielder Austin Cusack all have seen extensive playing time during their careers, as have sophomore Jordan Mirae (.263, 2012), Hawaii Prep graduate Travis Stancil and senior Will Thayer.
“More than anything else,” Estrella said, “our strength will be coming from the outfield.”
Senior Dane Kinoshita (1-4, 11.05 ERA) and junior left-hander Seamus Yoneshige (2-4, 7.61) are at the top of the pitching rotation and draw the starting assignments today against Augustana. The series continues with twinbills on Friday (4 p.m.) and Saturday (11 a.m.). Augustana went 1-4 in its season-opening series at Hawaii Pacific.
Depth is a concern for the staff, however, especially with so many back-to-back doubleheaders on tap.
The most powerful arms are that of Kinoshita, who can reach 86-88 mph on the pitching gun, and senior Richie Mariano, who will work behind the plate and resume the closer role he enjoyed two years ago.
“We’re going to throw strikes and make hitters attack the ball,” Estrella said. “We like aggressive hitters. If we can throw strikes, Wong helps us out quite a bit.”
Sophomore Jeremy Dela Cruz (3-3, 3.40) threw two compete games in 2012 and will start Friday, as will freshman Micah Witty-Oakland, a Pac-Five graduate that Estrella is high on. Senior Patrick Fletcher and junior Bryce Shandro garner starting assignments Saturday.
Mariano will share duties at catcher with seniors Greg Cleary and Tyler Nitahara, both of whom hit .183 last season.
Estrella likes the steady gloves of Abreu and sophomore Keenan Kaluau in the middle of the infield. Abreu (.256) has some pop but fits the team’s line-drive mentality. Kaluau cut his teeth some at shortstop last year, but he’ll move over to second base and is the team’s leading returning run producer with 12 RBIs in 2012. Fukunaga, a junior and a 2009 Hilo graduate, can fill in at either position.
Another JC transfer, sophomore Sam Kim, will play primarily against right-handers and platoon at third base with Medeiros.
He and Nishioka were the centerpiece of Estrella’s last recruiting class.
That’s one endeavor that the veteran coach won’t miss.
“That’s the hardest thing you do,” he said. “People don’t realize how difficult it is to bring players to Hawaii.”