Defense having a field day after a rocky start
BY Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
If it seems like Hawai'i's infield is making a lot of plays this season, you're not imagining it.
Despite two newcomers, including a freshman, Rainbow infielders are cleaning up well.
"Going into this season, I thought we were going to be a better defensive club from last year and that's because of how your infield plays," UH coach Mike Trapasso said.
Last year, the Rainbows were 14th in the nation with a .975 fielding percentage. Creighton led the country with a .984 mark.
After a shaky start in the season-opening series against Oregon State in which UH lost 3 of 4, the Rainbows' infield has corrected itself the past two series in which it took 3 of 4 from Oregon and split four with The Citadel.
Senior first baseman Kevin Macdonald, sophomore second baseman Kolten Wong, junior shortstop Greg Garcia and freshman third baseman Pi'ikea Kitamura have committed five errors in 12 games. Four came in the OSU series.
"We have a good infield," Macdonald said. "I know at the beginning, we struggled a little bit defensively, but we've turned it around now. I'm just pleased we're getting the job done."
Macdonald and Garcia have proved themselves in previous seasons, while Wong and Kitamura are making transitions.
Wong played exclusively in center field last season. Even though he played second base (and catcher) in summer and high school, there's some adjustment needed to your fellow infielders' nuances. Playing between Garcia and Macdonald might not be as routine as it seems because both have great range.
"It's all about knowing the player you're with, knowing the range that he has," Wong said.
Kitamura was an All-State shortstop at Kamehameha. He started playing third base for the Island Movers over the summer.
"The ball comes quicker on you," Kitamura said. "It's a different view, a different throw. I had to adjust to that this summer."
Both have done just fine, according to Trapasso.
"I think the way Pi'ikea plays over at third base and the way Kolten has adapted to second — we already knew that Greg is one of the better defensive shortstops on the West Coast and Kevin is the best defensive first baseman I've seen in 20 years coaching at the college level — I really felt we were going to be a better defensive club than last year," he said. "That's a tall order being better than we were last year considering we were 14th in the country in fielding percentage."
Hawai'i's infield — not counting grounders hit to the pitchers — has turned 118 grounders into outs, while 35 have gone through for hits. (Some of the 35 were stopped by an infielder, who was either unable to get off a throw or the batter beat out the throw.) That amounts to a .228 batting average on balls put into play on the ground.
Meanwhile, UH's opponents have turned 102 grounders into outs, while 37 were hits for a .266 batting average.
For UH, it's like having four infielders with a shortstop's mentality. It shows with Kitamura and with Macdonald, who played the position in high school. The other positions Wong played are the football equivalent of skill positions.
"Lot of coaches will tell you at the college level, if they had their preferences, they'd only recruit shortstops, pitchers and catchers," Trapasso said. "A lof of your best second basemen are former high school shortstops and a lot of center fielders are former high school shortstops because usually you put your best athlete at the high school level at shortstop or catcher."
Added Kitamura: "Playing there all my life, the shortstop always wants the ball, always wants to make that play. At third base, I have the same mentality. Ball off the bat, I'm going to react to it as fast as I can."
The other three infielders love having Macdonald at first because of his footwork around the bag to accept wide throws and his ability to dig out throws in the FieldTurf.
"He saves us (from making) so many errors," Garcia said.
Last year, Macdonald positioned himself a little farther from the bag to cover more ground. With Wong's range, he can stay a little closer to first. But Macdonald still likes to cover ground to his right. With seemingly overlapping coverage, it's a wonder the fielders don't get in the way of each other.
"We just try to talk it out," Macdonald said. "We're pretty good at it, but sometimes I don't go for a ball, thinking (Wong) could get it and it goes into right field. I'm thinking, 'I should've got it.' It's tough, but we're working on it."
Range isn't just limited to grounders. Pop ups into the shallow outfield areas are infielder's territory, too. Wong brings his center fielder mentality to the infield.
"It's knowing how far you can go, if I can get it, or if I should let it go," Wong said.
The infielders' mentality might best be put by Garcia. He and Kitamura make a pact before each game.
"Before every game, we tell each other, 'nothing gets past the left side,' " Garcia said. "We try to stick by those words."