By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
He’s been working on developing Jeremy Dela Cruz’s changeup, and he’s trying to make Korin Medeiros feel more comfortable behind the plate.
Those were just a few of the duties on Kallen Miyataki’s preseason to-do list. Nothing new for a baseball veteran such as Miyataki, though this time he’s performing them as University of Hawaii at Hilo’s head baseball coach. And for the first time, well, — ever — that coach is not Joey Estrella.
Set to begin the Vulcans’ 38th season as the program’s second skipper, Miyataki likes the view from the top heading into a doubleheader today against Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho.
“I’m very optimistic on where we stand,” he said. “For me, I’m not looking at the wins and losses. I’m looking at development so we’re looking in the right direction as players get better.”
Coming off of a 12-32 season (11-25 Pacific West Conference), UHH isn’t blessed with much power or speed, and two big inning-eater pitchers must be replaced.
“I think the type of team we’re looking to strive to be is one that emphasizes defense,” Miyataki said. “That’s the easiest thing to work on.”
A former assistant for Estrella, Miyataki was a player on the 1983 UHH team that finished 41-10 to win an NAIA district championship. Estrella fondly remembers the squad as one of his better and highest-ranked teams.
“Kallen was like a coach out there on the field,” Estrella said.
To reach Division II success in his first year as head coach, Miyataki has a pair of sturdy bats to pencil into the middle of the lineup in corner infielders Sam Kim and Keenan Nishioka.
Kim, a junior third baseman, represents the team’s power source at cleanup. He’s the only player on the roster who hit a home run as a Vulcan last season, leading the team with five homers and 17 RBIs to go along with a .285 average.
Nishioka, a first baseman who will hit third, is the sole returning .300 hitter and looks to build upon his breakout freshman season.
“He was a very good surprise,” Miyataki said of the Hilo High graduate. “More of a gap hitter. I expect good things out of him as he adjusts and matures.”
Nishioka is the kind of hometown product that Miyataki hopes to draw to the program on a regular basis.
“Our object is to recruit locally first and get the top athletes,” he said, “and then look away.”
Miyataki sees steady gloves up the middle defensively.
The Vulcans will feature a freshman at shortstop. Kauai’s Bryson Freitas is expected to start today, but Honolulu’s Edison Sakata was also in the mix during the preseason. Senior Ryan Fukunaga, a Hilo High graduate, made 14 starts and is primed to take full-time duties at second base. Junior Jordan Murai hit .240 in 25 at-bats last season and will hold down center field and bat leadoff.
Miyataki says his roster is quicker than it is fast, so stolen bases may not come at a premium.
“It should be interesting with what we try to do,” Miyataki said. “We’ll take whatever teams give us.”
While his focus is defense, Miyataki said senior Jonathan James won the job in left field because of his bat. Senior Harrison Guiol will play right field. Both corner infielders have good size at 6 feet, 2 inches.
Like Guiol, sophomore catcher Sean Nearhoof is new to the program.
Medeiros’ bat is a welcome addition to the lineup, so when the Waiakea graduate’s not filling in at designated hitter, Miyataki has been working with the redshirt freshman at catcher.
“He showing promise behind the plate,” Miyataki said. “I put him behind there to build him up and give him a better understanding about hitting.”
Miyataki said brothers Dane and Gavin Kinoshita would be missed on the mound.
While UHH might not have an established ace, 6-3 sophomore right-hander Jordan Kurokawa flashed last season with a 1.11 ERA in 32.3 innings pitched, making four starts. Dela Cruz, a junior right-hander, will move up near the top the rotation after going 1-6 with a 4.24 ERA.
“Jordan’s kind of tall and sleeky and he’ll get to about 86-88 MPH when pitching in Hilo,” Miyataki said. “He has command of his fastball and breaking ball has been working on a changeup.
“Jeremy’s more of a crafty guy. He’s been working on an outpitch, and it’s probably his changeup.”
Junior college transfer Jordyn Ah Chong, a right-hander, also figures to get a start against Northwest Nazarene, but Miyataki wasn’t sure about his fourth starter when the series concludes with a doubleheader Tuesday.
The road trip continues with Friday and Saturday doubleheaders at Fresno Pacific, and the home opener is slated March 10 against Point Loma.
Miyataki feels like he has at least four dependable arms, including two left-handers, to call on from bullpen. Waiakea graduate Sheldon Shishido, a senior, compiled two saves last year, senior left-hander Seamus Yoneshige could start or relieve, junior Jordan Kumasaka could be used situationally as a left-hander, and Michael Slifer is a junior transfer.