TEMPE, Ariz. » When the Hawaii baseball team departed Honolulu Airport 21 days ago, nothing was for certain.
Mike Trapasso’s status as head coach, the future of the program — even a berth in the Western Athletic Conference tournament wasn’t a given.
A team that seemed on the verge of putting it all together for one final run did exactly that, making it all the way to the Tempe regional final against No. 1 Arizona State before losing 8-4 yesterday at Packard Stadium.
Hawaii (35-28) finished with its first WAC tournament championship in 18 years and qualified for the postseason for just the second time since 1993.
The Rainbows went 9-4 on their final road trip to finish with 35 wins for just the second time under Trapasso. Hawaii played its last seven games against ranked teams, going 4-3 while playing its best baseball of the season.
"It’s why you’re in this business, to see things come together — and at the right time," Trapasso said. "You’re happy for the kids when they get it, and when they start believing in what you’ve been working on the whole year, and we saw that over the last month and a half."
Offensively challenged at times during the year, the Rainbows lit it up under the scorching Arizona sun. After hitting .379 in the WAC tournament, UH came into the Tempe regional a confident group, despite facing some of the toughest pitchers in the country.
UH finished 2-2 in regional play, beating No. 19 San Diego twice, including 12-9 yesterday to stave off elimination once.
The Sun Devils (50-8), the No. 1 overall seed, proved to be too tough for the ‘Bows, who battled through 18 innings in temperatures that reached 108 degrees.
"I didn’t want it to end like this, but losing against the No. 1 team in the nation isn’t the worst thing in the world," said senior Kevin Macdonald, who hit the 24th home run of his career against the Toreros (37-22) to finish tied for the second-most in school history.
David Freitas also homered against San Diego, becoming the 13th player overall, and fifth in the last two years, to hit at least 10 in a season.
The victory gave Hawaii a second crack at Arizona State. Unlike the 12-1 loss the ‘Bows suffered on Saturday, UH battled tooth-and-nail against the much fresher Sun Devils and stayed in the game all the way to the end.
"We just realized this could be our last few games … so we just left everything out on the field," said junior Sean Montplaisir, who took ASU starter Jake Borup deep for a two-run homer in the fourth inning to put Hawaii up 4-3.
Lefty Sam Spangler was scratched from his scheduled start against USD with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. That moved Zach Gallagher into a starting role in the opener and added to the challenge of playing four games in three days with a depleted staff.
Sophomore Connor Little, who threw three perfect innings against Arizona State in a game last year, did his best to keep Hawaii in it. He made it into the sixth inning with Hawaii trailing by only three, allowing Trapasso to go straight to ace closer Lenny Linsky.
Linsky allowed one run over the final 2 1/3 innings, but Hawaii was held scoreless after Montplaisir’s home run.
Borup (11-1) got the win and relievers Mitchell Lambson and Jordan Swagerty combined to retire the final nine UH hitters.
The focus now shifts to what the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, which starts today, will do to the 2011 UH squad.
Hawaii has four juniors and multiple recruits who could all wind up bypassing college to play pro ball instead.
"We’re going to have some holes that we have to fill," said Trapasso, who is expected to be back next season after athletics director Jim Donovan said last Sunday that he would be offered a new contract. "We have a good recruiting class coming in, but we’ll have to see what the draft does to it."