IT was almost exactly a week ago that we here with Na Koa Ikaika Maui were playing for our postseason lives.
We were down mere percentage points to the Yuma Scorpions in the Golden Baseball League’s South Division standings — with two games left before the end of the first half of our season.
To say that 45 games came down to the final two games of our half-season would be a little theatrical, but not far from the truth. The facts were plain and simple: If we won both of our remaining first-half games, we would win our division and a berth into our league’s postseason in September.
But as is usually the case, wins at the end of the season — or in this case, the midpoint of the season — are hard to come by. Our road down the stretch of the first half was no different.
Arriving home in Kahului after winding up a 15-day road trip through Tijuana, Mexico; Tucson, Ariz.; St. George, Utah; and Fullerton, Calif., we thought the worst was over. Winning on the road in this league is tough, due to the three different countries and the many different climates. From the snowy, cold conditions in Canada to the humidity of Tijuana to the blistering dry heat of Tucson and St. George, where game-time temperatures sat over the 100-degree mark each night, travel in the GBL is a challenge.
Our goal for the road trip was simple: return home in first place. With a division lead that swelled to three games at one point, we wrapped up our road trip 1 1/2 games ahead of Yuma with six home games to go. Yuma won twice after that, so by the time we opened our half-season-ending six-game series with the Victoria Seals, we were up just a half game.
But the true challenge came when we lost one of our top starting pitchers, who was scheduled to start the first and last games of our series. Unfortunately for us, the former Triple-A southpaw decided he had to head home to tend to some personal matters. The worst part is that he told our manager on the morning of the first game, leaving our pitching rotation for the series in limbo.
We regrouped and, on day five of the series, needed two straight wins to bring our team a division pennant.
We needed someone to step forward and put us on his shoulders for a game. Filling the series opener with a spot starter left us having to go with another spot starter for the final two games of the series as well.
We needed a hero.
We found two.
Local baseball fans have known the name Kaimi Mead for a few years. He was a standout at Roosevelt High his senior season and starred at Hawaii Pacific University after a two-year junior college stop. Mead enjoyed arguably one of the best seasons ever by an HPU hurler. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and had two strong seasons in their minor league system.
This season, he’s been one of the mainstays of our pitching staff. After he began the season in our starting rotation, we found a greater need in late-inning relief, so we moved him into that role and he flourished.
But on this day, we needed Kaimi to start for us one more time. His outing against the hard-hitting Seals lineup would determine whether our postseason hopes remained alive. Thankfully, they did.
Mead held Victoria scoreless for six strong innings, staking us to a 1-0 lead. The outs didn’t come easy, but Mead battled and clawed, spacing five hits while striking out five and walking one.
By the time our bullpen took over to start the seventh inning, we increased our lead to 4-0, and relief pitchers Jerry Spradlin and Kent Tsujimoto combined for three scoreless innings.
Mead had helped make us a winner, and more important, gave us a chance to win the division the next night.
When we arrived at the ballpark the next afternoon, there was a buzz in the air. Our guys knew we controlled our destiny, and they were eager to take care of business.
With a win-at-all-costs approach to the game, we turned to our veteran right-hander Gregorio Martinez for the start on three days’ rest. With a five-man rotation, our starters usually have four days between starts to get the work in, heal and recuperate. But this time around we needed a dependable arm on the mound.
Gregorio was strong for the first three innings, putting up zeroes as our offense laid into Victoria starter and former major league pitcher Jason Kershner to the tune of seven runs.
Kamehameha alum Keoni Ruth started our scoring barrage with a booming two-run homer in the bottom of the first. Tim Battle extended the lead to 4-0 with his own two-run shot. And Mid-Pacific Institute grad Rex Rundgren’s triple sparked us to two more runs in the inning.
But Gregorio tired, and by the end of the fourth, our lead had evaporated almost completely to 7-5. But our manager’s confidence in Gregorio did not waver, and we ran him back out for the top of the fifth. After two quick base hits to start the inning, we knew his night was over.
Bringing a rookie reliever — especially one making his second professional appearance — into a game of this magnitude is not the norm. But I’ve seen Clayton Uyechi pitch since his days at Waianae High, and of course watched him lead Hawaii-Hilo’s pitching staff for four seasons as well. Clayton is a tough kid.
Bouncing onto the mound from the bullpen, Clay calmly, confidently retired the first three batters he faced to close the inning and retain our advantage. The next inning was more of the same, as he put up another scoreless inning, striking out two.
When he entered the game, we had lost our momentum and were fighting to keep the lead long enough for the mojo to swing back our way. And it did.
Spradlin gave us two more valuable innings of relief, and our reliable closer, former Toronto Blue Jay Jamie Vermilyea, set the Victoria hitters down without a run and the celebration was on.
We charged the field, we sprayed champagne everywhere, and we celebrated with beers and cigars in the clubhouse. It was a good time. Our guys stuck together and got the job done. We were division champions.
With half of our 90-game season remaining, and our spot in the playoffs already secured, we remain focused on our long-term goal, to win a league championship. That goal is within reach if we keep getting big performances in big games.
Brendan Sagara, a Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo product, is the pitching coach for Na Koa Ikaika, Maui’s team in the Golden Baseball League.