For its first three years in the Big West Conference, Hawaii had to play close to a perfect game just to win.
Even last season, when the Rainbow Warriors went 12-12 to finish with their first non-losing record in the BWC, UH won games in three consecutive weekends (Cal State Northridge, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State) by a 1-0 score. One mistake, one error, one failed execution, and it likely would have been a different outcome.
That’s not the case in 2016. Hawaii’s 6-1 start in conference, which already matches its entire win total from the 2014 BWC season, includes a 3-0 record in series openers. In all three games, Hawaii didn’t come close to playing a perfect game.
Against UC Irvine, UH allowed three unearned runs in the eighth inning after making four separate errors. Did it matter? Not at all. Matt LoCoco answered with a three-run double in the bottom of the eighth and Hawaii won 8-4.
Against UC Davis, UH fell behind 5-1 after two innings and left eight runners on base through five innings. Did it matter? Not at all. Hawaii’s pitching staff put up eight straight zeros and UH scored two in the sixth, two in the eighth and one in the 10th to win in extra innings.
Against Cal Poly, Hawaii gave up the first run on a throwing error, had a runner tagged out at home on a failed safety squeeze and gave up a two-out walk in the seventh that set up the tying run to score for the Mustangs. Did it matter? Not at all. UH scored three in the bottom of the eighth to win for the fourth time this season when trailing or tied after seven innings.
The reason for all of it? Hawaii is in as good of a groove at the plate as we’ve seen going all the way back to the 2010 run to a WAC championship and NCAA Regional final against Arizona State. Through seven games, UH is hitting a ridiculous .344 in conference play. The next-best team is UC Irvine, which is hitting .276, a full 68 points behind the Rainbow Warriors.
All nine starting position players rank in the top 41 in hitting and are at .269 or better. Jacob Sheldon-Collins is only hitting .500 (15-for-30) with six RBIs in seven games and Eric Ramirez (.400, 7 RBIs) and LoCoco (.387, 8 runs) are also tearing the cover on the ball.
What’s really starting to become apparent is the trickle-down effect to the rest of the lineup. Most notable, junior Alex Fitchett, who has all the tools to be a legitimate draft prospect if he can put it together at the plate, has at least one hit in every Big West game and is batting .360 (9-for-25) with five runs scored. In nonconference games, Fitchett hit just .200 with as many runs scored in 75 at-bats as he’s had in the last 25 ABs.
He had the big knock Friday night, turning a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning into a 6-3 advantage when he tripled home a run with two outs and scored on a Josh Rojas base hit over the shortstop’s head.
“I’m kind of — not down on myself — but kind of mad at myself for not producing as well as I should be,” Fitchett said after the win. “I’m trying to do more and more in the lineup and really start producing and today I was able to get that one hit.”
Scoring isn’t easy in the Big West, yet Hawaii has plated at least four runs in each contest and at least six runs in five of seven games. In 25 nonconference games in which Hawaii finished with an 11-14 record, the ‘Bows scored at least four runs just 15 times and at least six runs only six times.
There are going to be times when you will have to play nearly perfect. Tonight’s game against Cal Poly might be one of those instances. The Mustangs will start sophomore right-hander Erich Uelmen, who has not lost this season (4-0) and has posted a 2.77 ERA in 55 1/3 innings with 50 strikes and a .236 batting average against.
What makes life so much easier is that the pressure of having to play that perfect game every single time you go out there is no longer there. A throwing error from third? A failed bunt with a guy on third? The ‘Bows can shake it off now, because there’s a confidence among this group that it will get it back at the plate. Hawaii gave up more than one run in an inning three times in the first two games against UC Irvine. Each time, it came back to score in the bottom of the inning.
Hawaii was 2-25 against UC Irvine, Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton in Big West play entering the 2016 season. Already, the ‘Bows are 3-1 against those foes with a chance to follow up a series win against the Anteaters with another against the Mustangs. Do that, and suddenly the series against the Titans, the last one of the conference season for the ‘Bows, could be about much more than just a winning record on the line. A conference title, and a postseason berth, could very well be in play.