WAILUKU - Don't look now, but Na Koa Ikaika Maui are as close to first place as they have been since the first week of the North American League season.
Na Koa moved five games over .500 for the first time this year and within 1-1/2 games of the San Rafael Pacifics for the North Division lead with an 11-5 win over the Hawaii Stars to begin the final homestand of the season in front of 604 fans at Maehara Stadium on Tuesday night.
Big performances came from several sources, with none larger than that of Na Koa catcher Nick Valdez, who smacked his first two homers of the season to go with two doubles, four runs and four RBIs. His 4-for-5 effort raised his average from .245 to .259.
Na Koa Ikaika’s Chad Blackwell pitches during the first inning of Maui’s 11-5 win over the Hawaii Stars on Tuesday at Maehara Stadium.
The Maui News / BRAD SHERMAN photo
Na Koa’s Waylen Sing Chow scores the game’s first run as Kalaika Kahoohalahala heads to third base.
The Maui News / BRAD SHERMAN photo
"It has been a while since I had a night like that, I have had a rough season," Valdez said. "It was good to finally break out of that slump."
Valdez's second homer nearly cleared the trees in left field and gave Maui an 11-3 lead in the eighth inning. Left fielder Keoni Manago did not move when the ball was hit.
"That second (homer) felt really good, felt really solid," Valdez said. "I knew it was out when I hit it."
Na Koa's Chad Blackwell (8-1) allowed two runs in seven innings, allowing 10 hits with seven strikeouts and no walks.
Stellar defense helped him out of several jams.
"That was key to his performance, he pitches to contact," Valdez said of Blackwell. "So it was nice for him to scatter them, he pitched well."
In an unbalanced schedule, Maui (30-25) is slated to play 66 games.
San Rafael (31-23) is off this week and will finish a 60-game season next week in California with six against Maui.
Hawaii's 54-game season ends with its six-game set on Maui - the Stars (23-26) were mathematically eliminated with their loss Tuesday. Last-place Sonoma County is done with its 48-game schedule.
"This (win) was huge, I mean we are starting to click on all cylinders," Valdez said. "The hitting is coming along, defense, and the pitching has always been there all year, so it is nice. We are going to be a tough team to beat now."
Na Koa's Gered Mochizuki continued his hot August with a 2-for-3 night that included a double, a triple, two RBIs and a run. In 11 games since Aug. 2, Mochizuki is 13-for-33 with 14 RBIs and eight runs.
Maui jumped on top 3-0 in the bottom of the first inning with the help of an error that allowed leadoff batter Waylen Sing Chow to reach base. Kalaika Kahoohalahala followed with a single and the runners moved to second and third on a passed ball. Danny Sandoval and Chemah Sanchez each knocked in runs with groundouts and Valdez followed with his first homer.
Na Koa went in front 6-1 in the third - Kahoohalahala scored a run in the rally, and Mochizuki had an RBI triple and scored.
The Stars got a run back in the top of the fourth but Blackwell avoided a big inning with assistance from a double-play grounder off the bat of former Maui catcher Logan Kanamu.
Maui put two more runs on the board with back-to-back RBI doubles by Valdez and Mochizuki in the fifth, and added a run in the seventh when Valdez doubled and scored on an error.
"Chad did his thing, gave us seven strong innings, Nick hit the ball hard five times - he was up five times, squared it up five times," said Maui manager Jamie Vermilyea. "It is good to see him hit the ball out of the park. Hopefully that gets him going for the rest of the series. We just have to take one game at a time, but obviously each game is important now."
* Robert Collias is at email@example.com
Ronnie Loeffler, Cortney Arruda (6), Anthony Williams (8) and Adam Jacobs; Chad Blackwell, David Jensen (8), Vinnie St. John (9) and Nick Valdez. W-Blackwell, 8-1. L-Loeffler, 6-3. 2B-M, Valdez 2, Mochizuki. 3B-H, Reggie York; M, Gered Mochizuki. HR-M, Valdez 2 (2).
Leading hitters-H, Dion Pouncil 2-5, run, RBI; Matt Hibbert 3-5, run; Reece Alnas 2-5, run; Adam Jacobs 3-4. M, Valdez 4-5, 4 runs, 4 RBIs; Mochizuki 2-3, run, 2 RBIs.