HONOLULU — It is early, actually very early, in the Big West Conference baseball and softball seasons, but the University of Hawaii baseball and softball teams are off to a great start so far and each could solidify their positions with strong showings at home this weekend.
The Rainbow Warriors (14-13 overall) are 2-1 in the Big West after an impressive series victory at then-No. 10-ranked UC Santa Barbara (19-5, 1-2) this past weekend. UH plays host to UC Irvine (18-9, 2-1) in a three-game series starting Friday at Les Murakami Stadium.
The Rainbow Wahine (18-14, 3-0) began their conference schedule with a road sweep at UC Riverside (19-17, 0-3) last weekend and will play host to Cal State Fullerton (21-13-1, 2-1) in a three-game home series Friday and Saturday.
The baseball ’Bows’ series victory was particularly impressive, not just because it was on the road and UCSB was ranked and off to its best start in 30 years, but also because the Gauchos lineup featured some of the nation’s leading hitters and yet Hawaii came within two runs of an improbable sweep. It was the first series loss for UC Santa Barbara since April 2013.
The series proved UH’s pitching staff is legit, with starters Matt Cooper and Jarrett Arakawa each stifling the Gauchos over nine and six innings, respectively. Saturday starter Scott Squier unfortunately had his worst outing of the season, allowing six runs in just two innings, but Eric Gleese came in later to throw three shutout innings.
Cooper was named Big West Pitcher of the Week after his six-hitter with nine strikeouts and only two walks. UCSB entered the game leading the conference in batting average (.316), home runs (11), runs scored (146), RBIs (132) and slugging percentage (.428), but Cooper held the Gauchos to their season-low in runs (1).
In the meantime, perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise was the Rainbow Warrior bats, which had averaged only four runs per game in the three previous victories over Alabama-Birmingham, and was shut out (5-0) in the one loss to UAB.
Against UCSB, Hawaii pounded out 14 hits in the 3-1 series-opening win, 14 more hits in an 8-7 loss in Game 2, then 16 hits in the 12-4 victory in the season finale. That’s 44 hits in three games against the No. 10-ranked team according to Collegiate Baseball, a team that was 16-0 when holding opponents to five runs or less.
The Rainbow Warriors were no doubt sparked by the return of freshman Marcus Doi, who had been reduced by injury to pinch-hit duty for several weeks before starting the Friday opener as the designated hitter and going 3-for-4 with an RBI. He went 0-for-5 on Saturday, but came back to go 2-for-4 with two RBIs on Sunday.
Another big boost came from cleanup hitter Marc Flores, who went 2-for-4 with a double and RBI on Friday, 4-for-5 with an RBI on Saturday and 2-for-5 with a double, home run and four RBIs on Sunday.
And then there was Juliene Jones, who broke out of an 0-for-35 slump to go 3-for-5 with two RBIs on Sunday.
The team batting average rose 22 points to .244 after the three games.
In some ways, the Rainbow Wahine softball team is on an even better roll, having won five straight games including the three-game sweep at UC Riverside.
Sophomore starter Loie Kesterson won two of the games at UCR, allowing three runs on eight hits and only one walk in Friday’s 7-3 victory, and notching another complete game Sunday by allowing no earned runs and only one walk in the 4-1 win.
Freshman Heather Morales won the middle game, 8-7, allowing only one earned run in seven innings pitched.
Hawaii also seems to have found its home run swing, with Jazmine Zamora and Kayla Wartner each going yard n the opener, Sharla Kliebenstein slamming a two-run shot in Game 2 and Leisha Liilii and Wartner again hitting homers in the finale.
Winning on the road always is a key in any conference race, and both the Rainbow Warriors and Rainbow Wahine have already shown they can do it, against strong competition.
It’s even better now that both are home, where they can build on the early conference lead.
Things won’t be easy, but the quick starts are sure to bring out bigger crowds, and it’s nice to be the one being chased instead of the one doing all the chasing once in a while.
When it comes to UH athletics, being at home in front of a large and fired-up crowd, fighting a good team for first place … it doesn’t get much better.