A's get charge out of all-Hawai'i battery
By Josh Suchon
Special to The Advertiser
By Josh Suchon
PHOENIX — The number of baseball players from the Islands playing professional baseball on the Mainland is rare enough, but it was truly unique when pitcher Shane Komine and catcher Kurt Suzuki formed an all-Hawai'i battery.
It occurred twice at Single-A Stockton in the California League last year, then five times in the Arizona Fall League.
"It was awesome," Komine said. "Talking to some people, it might be the first all-Hawaiian battery."
Added Suzuki: "That was really cool. It just seemed like we clicked right away. We knew what the other was thinking. There was a trust factor immediately. ... It would be really neat if we can do it in the majors sometime."
There's a chance it could happen. Both players are in the major-league training camp for the Oakland Athletics this spring. Neither is a candidate to make the team, but the future is bright for both.
Komine, a 1998 Kalani High graduate, re-established himself as a prospect last season, after returning from "Tommy John" elbow surgery, and could start this year at Triple-A Sacramento.
Suzuki, a 2001 Baldwin High alum, is the top catching prospect in the A's system, and scheduled to start the year at Double-A Midland.
Komine was nicknamed "The Hawaiian Punchout" by Baseball America while at Nebraska, a nickname he loves, after striking out 510 batters in 432 innings.
But he was overused and the A's were particularly upset at Komine's workload after they drafted him.
"He threw a ton," Oakland assistant general manager David Forst said. "I don't know if there are records of his pitch counts, but his were legendary — 145 on Friday, then back out of the bullpen on Sunday. It obviously helped their team in college, but it probably caught up with him when he had surgery last year."
Komine believes the same, adding that his mechanics weren't the smoothest in college either.
"Your arm can only take so much," he said. "When you throw as many pitches as I did in college, it's going to catch up with you sooner or later."
Komine never complained at the time, thinking about his teammates and the present, oblivious to the future.
"When you're trying for a College World Series title, you want to do anything you can to help the team," Komine said. "Now I realize in pro ball it's about longevity and doing what's right for your arm and yourself and the team."
Dr. Lewis Yocum, one of the best in the country, did the surgery in July 2004. It's never certain if a pitcher will regain his velocity or command, and the rehab process can be long and frustrating.
Komine felt he turned the corner in his rehab after working out with Mike Fetters, an Iolani School graduate who played 16 years in the majors. He also credited longboarding with helping his rehab.
"That's something that really helped me get back into shape and speed up the rehab process," Komine said. "Just the motion and all that work you do in the water paddling, the constant paddling. It's a good burn for your upper body."
Komine returned in July, making four appearances in rookie ball, two starts with Suzuki in A-ball, then finished the year at Double-A Midland.
"I'm glad to be back pitching again," Komine said. "I could have fallen off and my career might have been done after that season. I'm fortunate and really blessed."
Komine allowed one earned run in two playoff starts for Midland, then dominated the Arizona Fall League, going 1-1 with a 1.14 ERA and .241 opponents batting average in five starts.
"I think Shane will tell you he had concerns about going through the rehab and working his way back," Forst said. "Once he committed to it, he was determined to get back. We were happy with the results last year."
Suzuki was one of the heroes for Cal State Fullerton's national championship team in 2004, providing the game-winning RBI in the championship game.
He wasn't supposed to be in the A's camp last year, but a knee injury to first-round pick Landon Powell opened the door.
"He had a fantastic camp and really caught the attention of the big league coaches," Forst said. "He stayed in camp longer than some guys who were ahead of him on the depth chart. That went a long way to increasing his confidence going into the year."
Suzuki hit .277 with 12 home runs and 65 RBIs in 114 games at Stockton. He threw out 37.2 percent of base stealers, but had a league-high 19 passed balls.
The number of games is always an adjustment for first-year players, especially catchers who must constantly learn new pitchers and get used to the daily wear and tear on their bodies.
Suzuki said there were some ups and downs throughout the year, but was pleased overall.
"Being around major-league guys all spring definitely gave me a confidence boost to prove to myself that I can hold my own," he said. "I used a lot of that last year, but I know I still have a lot more to learn."
Also helping Suzuki's long-term prognosis is Oakland's decision to move Daric Barton, the organization's top prospect, from catcher to first base. Barton, 20, was acquired in the Mark Mulder trade two offseasons ago and is considered one of the best hitters in the minors.
Oakland catching coach Bob Geren, a former roving instructor, said "it wasn't even close" how far ahead Suzuki was from other first-year catchers last spring.
A childhood spent in the ocean also assisted Suzuki.
He rarely surfs nowadays, but there was one summer he caught waves every day. Suzuki felt the biggest advantage was the strength in his shoulders from paddling, plus the balance surfing requires.
"The foot coordination is huge for catching," Geren said. "Surfing, I wouldn't doubt it. I've never done a study on it. But I would imagine it would (help). It's great for balance and coordination."
Komine returned to O'ahu this offseason and plans to marry girlfriend Jodi in January.
He likely will move to California or Arizona, to be closer to the A's workout facilities, but his thoughts are never far from home.
"There's a lot of kids out on the Islands who want to be in my position," said Komine, who wears a necklace with a royalty carving. "I was in their position when I was younger. I want to be a good role model for them, show them that guys from Hawai'i can make the next level."
Suzuki agrees. He spent a month on Maui to recharge himself before the season, and wears a puka-shell necklace with pride.
"It's always an honor to represent the Islands over here," Suzuki said. "It's just cool. Baseball is not the biggest thing over there, but there's a lot of people who care about it."