WANTED: A closer

Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso has had to make quite a few mound visits this season. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.
Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso has had to make quite a few mound visits this season. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

There was a lot to like about Hawaii’s series win against San Francisco over the weekend.

The Rainbow Warriors (4-5) hit .351 (40-for-114) and averaged eight runs per game against the Dons. Six of nine starters hit over .300 led by freshman catcher Kekai Rios, who responded to his first three-game series starting each one with a blistering .538 (7-for-13) average with a double, five runs, four RBIs. UH had 10 extra-base hits including a second homer already this season from Matt LoCoco.

All three starting pitchers had quality starts. The lines:
Brendan Hornung (7 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K)
Kyle Von Ruden (8 1/3 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K)
Alex Hatch (6 1/3 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K)

Defensively, UH made six errors. The goal is always two errors or less in a series, but when five are made by the normally sure-handed Jacob Sheldon-Collins at shortstop, you can give him a free pass. Sheldon-Collins has been very good defensively since arriving at UH last season. He made nine errors all of last year and had one in his first six games before this weekend. Chances are, you’ll never see that number again, and the rest of the team was nearly flawless.

That leaves the one glaring weakness of this UH baseball team so far. It would have been a perfect 3-0 weekend had UH had that one guy of the bullpen to close out games. Instead, UH nearly gave the series away, blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning to lose 5-4 on Saturday and letting a three-run lead in the ninth inning Sunday disappear before winning in extra innings.

Hawaii has held a lead of two or three runs in the ninth inning in four of nine games played this year. Only once has it held up (UH ended up winning two of those in extras). Newcomer Casey Ryan was pegged as that back-end guy to start the year. In non-save situations, he has pitched well, throwing 1 1/3 hitless innings with two strikeouts while trailing 1-0 to UH Hilo and a hitless innings against New Mexico trailing 7-1.

Save situations have resulted in a different outcome. Holding a 3-1 lead with two outs against New Mexico, Ryan came in and threw wild pitches on each of his first two throws to let the tying runs score without a hit. Then on Saturday, he gave up a hit and a four-pitch walk without recording an out.

Isaac Friesen hasn’t pitched bad out of the bullpen the last two weeks, but in both games, UH tried to stretch him into a third inning by starting the ninth after coming in as a reliever in the seventh. Both times it hasn’t worked.

If Friesen works as a bridge to the ninth, which he has been good at, that leaves someone remaining to finish games off. Hawaii tried Lawrence Chew, Kyle Mitchell and even Josh Pigg in the 10th inning on Sunday to get it done, but none could close the door.

That leaves the two holdovers from last year with the most experience. Right-hander Cody Culp and left-hander Matt Valencia at one point last season were UH’s two back-end guys late in games, until things didn’t work out and Quintin Torres-Costa eventually took over in dominating fashion.

Both Culp and Valencia went through the same first-year ups and downs as junior-college guys as you’re seeing from Ryan and Friesen. However, they now have that year of experience under their belt and have put up good numbers. Valencia, who saved the game Sunday getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam, also was good in the win over New Mexico, pitching the 10th and 11th innings without giving up a run. Culp came in to nail down Hawaii’s first win of the season against Hawaii Hilo.

Through nine games:
Culp (6 1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K)
Valencia (5 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K)

Culp might not have the “stuff” as some of the other relievers, but he is experienced and he does throw strikes, two things that matter the most right now it seems. The ultimate x-factor looks to be Valencia, who does posses the best pitch on the team with a curveball that coach Mike Trapasso has said is a “major league curve.” He’s struggled in some late-game situations in the past, but he has come up huge two weeks in a row.

Hawaii has a lot of new faces in the bullpen. Ryan and Friesen have been two options so far, but with both still trying to figure things out at the Division I level, it might make the most sense using the experienced guys in Valencia and Culp moving forward. Once Ryan and Friesen add some innings and gain some confidence, they could ultimately be the guys. For now, it’s looking like experience more than anything else is the direction UH may want to go when trying to nail down wins in the ninth inning.