HONOLULU–The Honu, or Hawaiian sea turtle, is endangered in these parts. But the North Shore Honu was simply dangerous against the Waikiki BeachBoys in a 5-1 victory for the Hawaii Winter Baseball championship at Les Murakami Stadium.
An announced crowd of 3,783–by far the largest of the seven-week season watched the West champion Honu (19-17) get four-hit pitching from their two pitchers and post 14 hits against the East champion BeachBoys (20-17).
"I'm so proud of these kids," said Honu manager Dave Clark, the Astros' Double-A manager at Corpus Christi (Texas).
The Honu went down to the second to the last day of the regular season to clinch the West by a half-game, while the BeachBoys took their division by 4 1/2 games.
Lefthander Joe Thatcher (2-1) pitched 4 1/3 innings of one-hit ball, striking out three in relief of starter Blake Eager, while Hawaii native Rodney Choy Foo (Indians) drove in the tying and go-ahead runs to lead the Honu.
Thatcher said he used mostly fastballs.
"I think I threw three or four curveballs and maybe and one changeup," said Thatcher (Brewers). "I was just being aggressive, going right at them.
"I didn't expect to go that long. I didn't go that long all year. Coaches had faith in me, kept running me out there. Drew Butera did a heck of a job behind the plate; the best catcher I've ever thrown to."
Clark added he kept Thatcher in long because he wanted to keep switch hitters Eric Young Jr. and Dexter Fowler in the righthanded hitter's box.
"He did a great job of keeping those guys off the bases and keeping them from scoring runs," Clark said.
But before Thatcher entered the game, the BeachBoys squandered golden opportunities. They took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth on a solo home run by Mark Minicozzi (Giants); it was his fifth of the season which tied him for the league lead with West Oahu's Yasushi Iihara (Yakult Swallows).
Before the homer, Young led off with a walk, but was thrown out stealing second, a play that BeachBoys manager Lenn Sakata (Giants manager at high Class A San Jose) argued to no avail.
If that wasn't enough, the BeachBoys blew another chance in the fifth. Reed Eastley (Mariners) led off with a triple to center. But Chris Nelson (Rockies) flied out to shallow center, freezing Eastley at third and Ian Desmond grounded out to third, again holding Eastley, for the second out.
Clark pulled Eager for Thatcher to face the left-handed hitting Sebastien Boucher, who struck out on four pitches.
Still, with lefthander Atushi Nohmi (Hanshin Tigers), who entered the game with the second lowest ERA at 1.29 going for the BeachBoys, it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Honu. Nohmi scattered four hits in five scoreless innings, striking out seven. But Sakata lifted him for lefthhander Hirotaka Egusa (2-1) to start the sixth, when the Honu went small-ball to tie the game.
Darren Ford (Brewers) singled and advanced to second on Lorenzo Cain's (Brewers) bunt single. Dustin Martin (Mets), who doubled his first two times up, sacrificed the runners over.
With the infield playing back, Choy Foo's ground out to second scored Ford to make it 1-1.
The Honu snapped the deadlock in the eighth. With one out, Cain singled and took third when Martin reached on second baseman Young's fielding error.
Choy Foo went the opposite way with a double to left to score Cain to put his team ahead, 2-1, and send Martin to third, where he scored on Mike Carp's flare single to left to make it 3-1.
"He came in fastball the first time, so I tried not to miss that," Choy Foo said. "I was just kind of cheating on it. I got lucky to get my bat on it to help my team out."
The Honu added two more in the ninth off Andrew Johnston on Cain's two-run single.
"(Nohmi) wasn't pitching well," Sakata said of his decision to lift his starting pitcher. "He was struggling and to make the change there was the right thing to do, hoping that the other guy would do better.
"I think we got beat my not executing the simple fundamentals of picking up a little ground ball. (And) we didn't hit. There's a number of reasons we didn't push ahead and have the lead. But that's baseball."
Players mingled a while after the game, but some had flights and left as soon as the game ended. Thatcher wasn't to leave until Thanksgiving night. But he didn't mind.
"I'm missing Thanksgiving,"said Thatcher, decorated with lei from well-wishers, "but this makes it all worth it right here."
• League chairman and chief executive officer Duane Kurisu said that while the league did not make money, its losses were substantially less than the league's first time around from 1993 to 1997, when HWB paid the players' salaries. This time, Major League Baseball paid the players and Fullcast, a Japanese human resources company, was a title sponsor.
Kurisu said HWB officials will attend the winter baseball meetings next month in Florida, where they wlll meet with the MLB farm directors. He said he will then go to Japan in January to meet with team officials from Nippon Professional Baseball.
He added the league is considering taking some series to the islands of Maui and Hawaii (the big island), where HWB originally had teams. Some of the league's best fan support came from those islands, even though Oahu has the largest population.
The league appeared to be a hit among the managers and players.
"If we can continue with this league–it's a great developmental league–then I'll do everything I can to continue to promote it," Clark said.
"It was well-run," Sakata said. "There were some mistakes, but overall we played a lot of games. I think the kids will benefit down the road and, hopefully, get to the big leagues."
• Honu third baseman Koby Clemens (Astros), son of pitching great Roger Clemens, liked the international appeal of the league.
"I think it made it better more than any other thing," he said of having teammates from Japan. "I've never been around Japanese players (before). Got to see their kind of game and their little spin off it. It's very similar and very different at the same time. Learning new things is so much fun up here."
Clemens' brother, Kory, was at the championship game. Koby said Kory will be walking-on at the University of Texas.
• Honu pitcher Zach Hammes (Dodgers) and Nyjer Morgan (Pirates) were added to their respective teams' 40-man rosters while in Hawaii.
"It's a good prize for the end of a long season," Hammes said. "I struggled for a while, but it just shows if you keep working, stuff will work out for you. It was a good surprise. I had an all right year and I did all right out here (0-1, 1.23 ERA, 18 Ks in 15 innings). It's good to be protected, but now your goal is to get to the big leagues."
• During a preseason welcoming party, Kurisu announced to the players that they will have to vote for a most inspirational player before the season ended. The winner would get a surfboard that had its respective team logos on it. The winners were announced at a mid-season party at the Waikiki Aquarium. They were: West Oahu outfielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi (Orix Buffaloes), Honolulu infielder Masaya Ozaki (Nippon Ham Fighters), North Shore pitcher Yusuke Kawasaki (Chiba Lotte Marines) and Waikiki catcher Devin Ivany (Nationals).