Hawaii received the best possible news concerning second baseman Stephen Ventimilia this week when an MRI revealed only a partial PCL tear in his right knee. Surgery is not necessary and Ventimilia could be back as early as the Oklahoma series next week, with New Mexico State the following week probably the more likely target date for his return.
UH has clearly missed him when he hasn’t been in the lineup. Including the two Oregon games he missed with the flu, the ‘Bows are 1-4 without him and the leadoff hitters in his place have combined to hit .095 (2-for-21). Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso has used juniors Matt LoCoco and Jacob Sheldon-Collins in that spot, but they are the bottom two on the team in hitting among players with at least 35 at-bats. LoCoco (.086, 3-for-35), Sheldon-Collins (.158, 6-for-38).
With Ventimilia in the lineup, you can plug in a Sheldon-Collins at No. 2 because of his ability to move runners over. Without Ventimilia, it’s a problem because as the Pepperdine series showed, the middle of the order was coming to bat with nobody to drive in. In the 2-0 loss to Pepperdine on Saturday, Aliviado and Ramirez gave UH its best scoring opportunity with back-to-back hits, but it came with two outs and nobody on. A run here or there could have made all the difference in a pitchers duel.
Trapasso’s lineup choices will be interesting during the Houston College Classic, which begins Friday with Hawaii taking on Baylor. The 3-6 hitters in the middle of the lineup seem pretty much set with Kaeo Aliviado (.263, 3 HR, 8 RBIs), Eric Ramirez (.386, 11 RBIs), Jordan Richartz (.243, 2 HR, 11 RBIs) and Alan Baldwin (.297, HR, 8 RBIs) the guys hitting for now. Third baseman Alex Sawelson is the guy UH needs to get going, but until he does so, he likely finds himself hitting seventh for the time being.
Two guys to watch will be a pair of redshirt freshmen in catcher Chayce Ka’aua and infielder J.J. Kitaoka. Ka’aua has quietly been pretty good at the plate this year, ranking fourth among starters with a .276 average. He’s also hitting .556 (5-for-9) with two doubles and five RBIs with runners in scoring position. Kitaoka has had a couple of good games in a row and is hitting .273 (6-for-22) with a triple and four runs scored, and will be an everyday player as long as Ventimilia is out.
Ka’aua has hit eighth in the lineup in all but one start (he hit seventh once). With the emphasis on trying to get runners on base in front of the middle of the lineup, he’s shown the bat that could maybe fit in that No. 2 hole. That leaves Kitaoka to maybe hit leadoff with LoCoco and Sheldon-Collins struggling. Hitting LoCoco and Sheldon-Collins consecutively in the lineup might be tough and Trapasso has the option of freshman Jonathan Weeks, who can play either in the infield or outfield spots. Weeks was impressive in scrimmages leading up to the start of the season with the bat and has three multihit games in his six starts.
Sheldon-Collins and LoCoco provide the better options defensively, but without Ventimilia, the offense has struggled outside of one Oregon game. Do you put the better defensive or offensive lineup out there this weekend against Baylor, Nebraska and No. 13 Houston? That’s the decision Trapasso faces with his team in need of three wins to get back to .500.