"So, does she hit one out now to win it?"
It was the bottom of the seventh. The PA guy, Mark Carpenter, wanted to know if he could start packing up, or if we were headed for extra innings at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.
Since the batter was Kelly Majam, my answer was easy.
"I wouldn’t bet against it. The way things go with Kelly, that would be about right, a game-winning homer in the last home game of the season."
That’s how Hawaii’s other super freshman of 2010 ended the home slate last year. Jessica Iwata blasted the ball over the fence to beat Fresno State.
Then I remembered this is a different UH team than the one that rode its affinity for the longball all the way to the College World Series. Everyone in the lineup was a threat to hit one out at any time; Majam and Iwata combined for 48 home runs, Majam leading the nation with 30. The entire team has 48 home runs this year, one year after clouting an NCAA record 158 (including postseason).
With three regular-season games left, Iwata is tied with freshman Sharla Kliebenstein for the team lead with 12 and Majam, who has played all 49 games despite offseason surgery for cancer, has seven.
BACK TO the conclusion against New Mexico State on Saturday: Majam flied out and Jasey Jensen was also retired, bringing up Iwata. The former Kauai High baseball player blooped a single into left field. Pinch runner Jazmine Zamora came around from second to slide home safely. And guess what? The Wahine finished with the same home record, 24-8, as they did during last year’s magical run.
The difference is they were 16-1 on the road compared to 4-4 so far this season. And, more importantly, in 2010 they crushed the WAC with a 19-1 league mark. They’re 11-7 right now, fourth behind Boise State, New Mexico State and Fresno State. UH is four games behind the Broncos with three left to play at San Jose State before the conference tournament at Fresno State.
UH COACH Bob Coolen said after the series sweep of NMSU that even if the Wahine don’t win the WAC tournament, they could get a regional berth. If Hawaii sweeps the Spartans, they’ll be 36-16 headed into the tourney.
"That’s when our strong nonconference schedule would come into play," Coolen said.
There are three big reasons besides momentum that UH might win the tournament and not have to worry about hoping for an at-large bid: pitching, base running and defense.
Hawaii is a team in transition, but maybe it’s almost there. The loss of four senior starters from the CWS team and the NCAA-mandated change to less explosive bats headed into 2011 made adjustments necessary. The Wahine could no longer just bludgeon anyone in their path, and veterans at catcher and the whole right side of the field would have to be replaced.
It’s taken almost the entire season to adapt, but there were indicators this weekend that the Wahine are improving at the little things necessary to win close games.
They showed they can move runners one or two bases at a time. UH even has 14 sacrifice bunts this season, a tactic they scoffed at last year.
The pitching of Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby is consistently better than in 2010. And you’ve always got a chance with Jenna Rodriguez battling, whether in the batter’s box or the pitcher’s circle.
Kliebenstein made a fine play only a left-handed catcher could make, on a bunt down the third-base line. And Majam’s defense in center field is as spectacular as it was last season; she tracked down a Hoku Nohara blast to the wall to make a hard play look easy. The team fielding is 11 percentage points better in WAC play than overall.
Before last weekend, UH was 5-8 in one-run games before taking all three from NMSU in that manner.
Last year the Wahine thrived on knockout punches. Their postseason success this year will be determined by their ability to go the distance — and not necessarily by hitting for it.
Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at email@example.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.