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Mules riding wave of momentum out West

What a week it was for the Leilehua baseball team.

After a 3-5 start in the Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I West, the Mules reeled off three consecutive wins in a seven-day span to get above the .500 mark for the first time since March 7.

The winning streak kicked off two Saturdays ago with a home date against Aiea.

Leilehua scored six first-inning runs and led by as many as seven runs, but Na Alii made a late push with five runs in the top of the seventh. Ultimately, Leilehua held on for a 9-8 win despite managing just three hits.

Thursday's road matchup at Pearl City played out in a different manner. Leilehua failed to protect three different leads before edging the Chargers in 13 innings, 6-5.

Less than 24 hours after that, the Mules played host to Mililani at Wahiawa Middle School field Friday afternoon — and it got off to an ominous start.

The Trojans put up a four-spot in the second inning and added another run in the third to take a commanding lead.

Leilehua starting pitcher Kaleo Nishimoto fought control issues throughout his 2 1/3 innings of work. He issued five walks with one strikeout and allowed four earned runs on four hits before being lifted for reliever Zane Staszkow.

"Kaleo is a sophomore, but we believe in him. He's shown it at the JV level that he can do the job, but I think he's just getting those varsity jitters a little bit," Mules' first-year coach Spencer Omalza said. "He's slowly coming around, but he's somebody that we believe in and we think is gonna help us down the road."

Staszkow, a junior right-hander, entered with one out in the top of the third inning and his team trailing by four runs. The first batter he worked to, Bryson Arakaki, put a ground ball into play on the right side of the infield that allowed a run to score. Two pitches later Staszkow induced an inning-ending double play off the bat of Zach Lafata to get out of the inning.

Omalza credited shortstop Ty Yukumoto, second baseman Jerin Poopaa-Adaro and first baseman Nathaniel Dela Cruz for turning two on the play.

"Those kinds of plays build a lot of confidence," Omalza said. "We just want our pitchers to know when they've got the lead and they're pitching with a lead to know that the so-called ‘pressure' is not on them. It's on the other guy, so just trust your D and throw strikes."

Offensively, the Mules saw a couple of chances go by the wayside in the early innings.

Jaku Hanohano led off the Leilehua second with a single, but was erased at second base when Nathaniel Dela Cruz's bunt was fielded by pitcher Ryan Ancheta, who went to shortstop Bryce Yonemori covering at second base for the lead runner. Dela Cruz moved up to second after Ancheta beaned Masen Reis with a pitch. However, the Trojans once again got the lead runner when catcher Korrey Siracusa gathered a Jaxon Hotta bunt and fired to Lafata at third for the force out on Dela Cruz.

Yukumoto, the Mules' No. 9 hitter, then singled on the first pitch he saw from Ancheta to load the bases, but Ancheta got Christian Ontai to fly out to center field for the third out.

"That was definitely a wasted opportunity," Ontai said. "We had a chance to score our first run in that inning, but we just couldn't capitalize."

The third inning led to more frustration for the home team.

Poopaa-Adaro reached base with a one-out walk and moved into scoring position on a single by Kaika Cordero. However, Ancheta struck Hanohano out looking for the second out just before Siracusa caught Cordero off the bag with a backdoor throw to first for the third out.

"You try to guide these guys as much as you can, but at the end it's up to them to execute the play. For sure that was a momentum-killer for us, especially with a team like (Mililani), you can't give ‘em those outs. You can't give ‘em, you gotta make them earn ‘em," Omalza said.

Leilehua broke through in the fourth, when it sent nine batters to the plate and took advantage of four errors by the Mililani defense.

The Trojans used three pitchers in the inning. They allowed two hits  — both singles — issued two walks, both of which scored, and hit one batter in the bottom of the fourth.

"It's the same thing all year," Mililani coach Mark Hirayama lamented. "We gotta learn how to be better with a lead and pitch a little bit better with a lead. We kind of just take it for granted and keep going, but we just gotta keep preaching to these guys that we gotta bear down in those situations and not change our approach. It's hard to see (why), but again, it's my job to try to get these guys back into understanding what's going on, but we just need a little bit more fight."

Meanwhile, the Mules backed up Staszkow by making the routine plays — and a few superb ones.

John Richard Suehisa worked a one-out walk off Staszkow in the top of the fourth, but was caught stealing by Hotta for the second out of the inning. Staszkow walked the next batter, Siracusa, but got pinch hitter Noah Domogsac to hit into the 4-3 put out and escape the jam.

After his teammates gave him the lead in the bottom of the fourth, Staszkow worked a 1-2-3 top of the fifth.

"Our guys just kept competing and we had good AB's, we were stringing hits together so we got more runs," Staszkow said.

In the top of the sixth inning, Arakaki singled on an 0-2 pitch to lead off, but Staszkow retired Lafata for the first out and then got Shea Yamaguchi to line out to Poopaa-Adaro, who took it to the bag himself to catch Arakaki to complete the inning-ending double play.

Staszkow saved little drama for the seventh, as he set the Trojans down in order to close out the win.

"He did excellent. I'm proud of him," Ontai said of Staszkow, who gave up just one hit over 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief.

Staszkow improved to 2-0 on the season and lowered his ERA to 3.46.

"He did a great job. He came in threw strikes and kept them in the ball game and gave them a chance and we didn't do that on our side, so hats off to him," Hirayama said. "He just kept throwing strikes and the ball had a little bit of movement, but again it's just a matter of letting them hit the ball and letting his defense make plays. I mean, they made some great plays as well, you know, they just wanted it more than we did today."

Despite losing five of their eight games in the month of March, the Mules find themselves just one-half game behind Mililani and Pearl City for second place in the OIA D1 West standings.

"This was a very big win because our record was even and now we have a winning record, hopefully going into the playoffs," Ontai said.

Leilehua concludes the regular season against last-place Waipahu Wednesday. The 12-team league tournament will take place Apr. 18-21.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].



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