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Nakama: Hawaii baseball faces test


HONOLULU — The University of Hawaii baseball team is coming off an impressive series victory (three games to one) over formidable Alabama-Birmingham, which is a positive sign and nice springboard for the Rainbow Warriors heading into their Big West Conference season-opening series at UC Santa Barbara this weekend.

The good – or bad – news for UH (12-12) is that this first Big West series could go a long way toward determining its hopes for a postseason berth.

UC Santa Barbara (17-3) is off to its best start in a generation, earning a No. 10 ranking by Collegiate Baseball, the first time the Gauchos have cracked the Top 10 since 1986. Their 17-3 overall record and 11-1 mark at home also represent their best starts since 1984.

UCSB is coming off a four-game sweep of Wagner and plays at Fresno State (15-9) in a non-conference game Tuesday night.

The Hawaii-UCSB series begins at noon (HST) Friday, followed by an 11 a.m. game Saturday and Sunday’s 10 a.m. finale. All three games will be broadcast live on radio at ESPN 1420 AM.

Gauchos freshman center fielder and leadoff batter Andrew Calica is the reigning Big West Field Player of the Week after hitting .588 with five RBIs in the four games vs. Wagner. Calica is now 11th in the country and third in the Big West with a .437 batting average. He has hit safely in 12 of the past 13 games and has reached base safely in 19 straight games.

Calica also has made a difference on defense with outstanding range and spectacular catches.

Senior third baseman Joey Epperson continues to lead the nation in batting at .493, and junior first baseman Tyler Kuresa leads the team with seven home runs.

UCSB also has a solid pitching staff led by starters Justin Jacome (4-0, 2.08 ERA), Greg Mahle (4-1, 1.35) and 2013 second-team All-Big West selection Austin Pettibone, who made his first appearance last weekend. Closer Dillon Tate already has five saves and has yet to allow an earned run.

Compared to last year, when Hawaii entered Big West play vs. the Gauchos at home with a 5-17 record, the Rainbow Warriors appear to be much better prepared this time around.

For one, the pitching staff is much healthier and stable. Senior ace Matt Cooper (2-1, 1.32 ERA) has been outstanding, junior Scott Squier (2-1, 2.16) had nine strikeouts in a hard-luck loss vs. UAB, junior Jarrett Arakawa (1-0, 2.03) is back to being his usual crafty and effective self after a year off due to injury, and senior Scott Kuzminsky (3-2, 3.69) has emerged as a reliable fourth starter after impressive back-to-back outings — he is the reigning Big West Pitcher of the Week after throwing a two-hit shutout of Nevada on March 17 followed by a six-strikeout, 4-2 victory over UAB, falling just one out short of another complete game.

Perhaps most importantly, the UH bullpen has shown marked improvement the past two series, with Waiakea graduate and redshirt freshman Quintin Torres-Costa coming back from Tommy John surgery to post two victories in his first two appearances with a 2.25 ERA, and sophomore utility player Juliene Jones (0-0, 2.45 ERA, 2 saves) establishing himself as a much-needed closer.

Throughout what promises to be a rugged 24-game Big West schedule, in addition to a four-game non-conference series vs. New York Tech and a single non-conference game at USC, the Rainbow Warriors surely will need more productive bullpen depth from redshirt freshman Andrew Jones (1-1, 7.71, 1 save), freshman Gordon Cardenas (0-2, 5.06, 1 save) and senior Josh Elms (0-0, 4.00, 1 save).

And just like last year, UH will need to find a way to generate more offense, quickly. The Rainbow Warriors have a team batting average of .225, a slugging average of .272 and an on-base percentage of .315. Even with solid pitching (like last year), those numbers may not be good enough to win a lot of games, especially against teams like UCSB which boasts two of the nation’s top hitters plus another guy who has already hit seven home runs.

Hawaii averaged only four runs per game in the three victories over UAB, and was shut out (5-0) in the one loss.

The return of true freshman Marcus Doi (.375, 6 RBIs in 11 starts) would help; he is scheduled to make the road trip and has been making pinch-hit appearances the past week while recovering from a leg injury. Leadoff batter Stephen Ventimilia (.295), No. 2 hitter Kaeo Aliviado (.266, 9 RBIs), No. 3 hitter Jordan Richartz (.263, 11 RBIs), cleanup batter Marc Flores (.277, 15 RBIs) and Adam Hurley – who has hit .293 while helping to fill in for Doi — are relatively productive, but there is a big dropoff after that as the next-highest batting average is Juliene Jones’ .215.

Still, the Rainbow Warriors appear to have just enough to compete in the Big West, since UAB entered last week’s series at 16-5 and was receiving Top 25 consideration. Hawaii also competed well in a road series at then-No. 10-ranked Texas, winning one game and losing the other three, 3-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

A strong showing at UCSB — say, a sweep, or winning two out of three — would give UH a big head start and solid positioning in the conference race. A poor showing, as in going 0-3 or 1-2, would put the Rainbow Warriors in an early hole and in “chase” mode right out of the gate.

Either way, we will know soon enough if this year’s UH team has Big West championship or postseason potential.

 

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