After a shortened 2020 season, the University of Hawaii baseball team is ready to play ball

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Stephen Tsai, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·6 min read
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Feb. 23—This offseason, the Hawaii baseball team has brushed off every knock-down pitch.

No large gatherings ? The program's biggest fund-raiser was moved online, with former Rainbow Warrior standout Kolten Wong serving as a guest speaker.

A Big West schedule with no mid-week, nonconference games ? Head coach Mike Trapasso managed to cobble a 51-game schedule—an amount usually crafted in non-pandemic years—leading off with this week's road series against Arizona State.

A league schedule of four-games-in-three-days series ? Trapasso plans to move last year's series-opening pitcher, Logan Pouelsen, to a permanent role as a Sunday starter. Pouelsen's volume-innings stamina will alleviate a bullpen shortage anticipated from doubleheaders on Saturday.

Trapasso, who has promoted the joyfulness of the national pastime, embraced the return of last season's top three starting pitchers and the entire lineup.

In the past, the'Bows would have lost their top juniors to a 40-round Major League Baseball draft for first-year players. In response to the pandemic, the 2020 draft was cut to five rounds. What's more, teams were limited to offering $20, 000 free-agent deals to undrafted players. Left-handed closer Jeremy Wu-Yelland was drafted, and swing pitcher Cade Smith and reliever Carter Loewen signed free-agent contracts.

But outfielder Adam Fogel, third baseman Dustin Demeter, shortstop Kole Kaler, first baseman Alex Baeza and left-handed starter Brandon Ross remained as'Bows after not reaching deals as undrafted juniors. Because the 2020 season was abbreviated, the NCAA allowed players to carry over last year's class standing to this year. Pouelsen and catcher Tyler Murray are repeating their senior season.

With a deep first-year class, the'Bows will have a blend of youth and experience for Trapasso's 20th season as UH head coach.

PITCHERS As a freshman in 2019, Aaron Davenport relied mostly on a curveball with a 3, 000-rpm spin rate—the MLB average is 2, 536—and a decent fastball. Last year, he tuned his mechanics, and developed a mesmerizing change-up. "What makes (Davenport ) dominant is the ability to throw any of those pitches at any time, " said head coach Mike Trapasso, who doubles as the pitching coach. Last year, Davenport, whose fastball can touch 92 mph, was 4-0, averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and did not yield a homer.

In a reverse-order progression, No. 2 starter Cade Halemanu improved his fastball and developed a curve to complement his base pitch, the change-up. As essentially a one-pitch freshman in 2019, Halemanu had difficulty the second time through a lineup. Halemanu's fastball, which used to sit at 86-88 mph, now regularly hits 91. "It starts with the type of person he is, " Trapasso said of Halemanu's work ethic. "He's a grinder. He's in tremendous shape. Through all the work in the fall and our bullpens and our scrimmages, he's been outstanding."

Logan is considered the No. 3 pitcher and will start on the Sunday—the final day—of a weekend series. He was the Friday starter in 2020. But after evaluating trends, it was decided Pouelsen was most productive in a series finale, all played in daylight. In five Sunday starts in 2019, Pouelsen was 3-1 with a 2.38 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. He averaged 1.19 walks per nine innings. "To have a guy who throws 90, 92 with four-pitch command on Sunday, I think it's something that could be an advantage for us, " Trapasso said.

Brandon Ross, who allowed six hits in four starts in 2020, has been hampered because of a fall-training ailment. The hope is he will be ready for league play in March. Until then, Austin Teixeira, a left-handed freshman from Saint Louis School, has the lead for the fourth spot.

Left-hander Connor Harrison, who was recently deemed eligible after transferring from Sierra College ; Cameron Hagen ; Jake Hymel, and Li 'i Pontes also are candidates for starting jobs. Hagen, Hymel, Tai Atkins and Buddie Pindel also are considerations for late-game roles. In addition to the three pitchers lost to the pros, the bullpen absorbed a hit when Vince Reilly left to reunite with his brother at Grand Canyon.

CATCHERS The heart of the pitching strategy is the pacemaker. Of all the catching skills—receiving, blocking, throwing—Dallas Duarte and Tyler Murray consistently meet the goal of imploring hurlers to throw a pitch every 11 seconds. Trapasso said it is key for a catcher "to run a pitching staff, to set tempo. Pitchers will work slow if you let them, and you can't let them. It's ultra important from a pitching standpoint to work fast, and we put that on the catcher to really dictate the tempo." Duarte has excelled in preseason scrimmages. Trapasso said fifth-year-senior Murray's experience is a "plus."

Three first-year'Bows are in the mix. Konnor Palmeira, who can play first and third, is skilled in receiving, blocking and establishing tempo. Nainoa Cardinez is a switch-hitter with power. Jared Quandt is a speedy runner who can play in the outfield.

INFIELDERS The'Bows return five starters at four positions. Dustin Demeter, who sat out the 2019 season following double hip surgery, has thrived as a power-hitting, power-armed third baseman after playing shortstop and then second his first two UH seasons.

Last season, first baseman Alex Baeza maintained gap power despite shoulder discomfort. That ailment has healed. "Defensively, " Trapasso said of the fifth-year junior, "Alex Baeza is as good as any first baseman we've ever had, and that's saying a lot because we've had several quality defensive first basemen."

Soon after transferring from a junior college in August 2019, shortstop Kole Kaler became a team leader. In 2020, Kaler hit a team-high.407—.533 with runners on base—and steadied the defense. "He's the glue that keeps it together, " Trapasso said.

Second baseman Aaron Ujimori, a switch-hitter, is back after suffering a season-ending injury in the 2020 opener. Stone Miyao started 11 of the ensuing 16 games, and did not commit an error in 54 chances. Both will be freshmen again this season.

Safea Villaruz-Mauai and Palmeira are DH candidates, as well as options to spell Baeza at first. Trapasso said Villaruz-Mauai "gives you light-tower power. From the left side, he has more power than anyone on the team."

Matt Campos can play every position, including catcher.

OUTFIELDERS For the first time in two years, Adam Fogel is fully healthy and back in center field. Fogel, who had a productive sophomore season in 2018 (eight homers, 37 RBI ), suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the 10th game of 2019. He was cleared to face live pitching two weeks ahead of the 2020 opener, but was used as a designated while his arm strengthened. Fogel has the speed (6.7 seconds over 60 yards ) and range to handle Les Murakami Stadium's fickle cross winds. "I think Adam is the guy who could have the breakout year, " Trapasso said.

Matt Wong, who started in center last year, underwent offseason knee surgery and will not be available early in the schedule.

Left fielder Scotty Scott (.321 ; .750 with two outs and runner on third ) and right fielder Tyler Best (.471 against lefty pitchers ) are the corner incumbents.

Jacob Igawa, a transfer from Hawaii Hilo, can play left field. Naighel Calderon, the fastest'Bow, and freshman Kenji Suzuki are speedy outfielders with line-drive swings.