NORTHRIDGE, Calif. – The University of Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors baseball team (18-18, 7-4 Big West) drew on timely hitting to push past the CSUN Matadors (23-14, 2-9 Big West) and even the conference series on Saturday afternoon at Matador Stadium. After fighting off a Matador rally late, it was the rookie catcher, Kekai Rios, who proved hero in extras with the clutch home run.
Consecutive extra base hits proved trouble for the Rainbow Warriors in the third inning, as Yusuke Akitoshi and Justin Toerner went back-to-back with a double and a triple to claim the early 1-0 lead.
Branden Berry followed in the fourth with first-pitch leadoff home run, the first off starter Kyle Von Ruden since Oklahoma last March, and then only the third against the 'Bows this season. With the long ball, the Matadors went ahead 2-0.
The 'Bows fired back in the top frame of the next inning, capitalizing on a Matt LoCoco one-out walk, as he scored on a hit-and-error play with the contact provided by third baseman Johnny Weeks. After Weeks moved to third on a wild pitch, shortstop Jacob Sheldon-Collins knotted up the score at two-all with a sacrifice fly.
With the score even in the sixth, Smith sent another first pitch yard for CSUN to reclaim the advantage at 3-2.
In response, UH didn't gun for the tie, instead putting up a three-spot in the seventh, as LoCoco's double down the left field line got the 'Bows started, bringing home a walked Josh Rojas for the tie, bringing an end to the day for CSUN starter Kenny Rosenberg.
Working against pitchers Nick Viola and Conner O'Neil, Sheldon-Collins followed another Weeks single for the RBI single up the middle, ahead of an Eric Ramirez RBI single through the right side for the 5-3 lead.
Smith trimmed the UH lead in the home half, and late outfield substitution Elias Orona again tied the score with an RBI single up the middle in the eighth, drawing the score to 5-5 and setting the stage for extra innings.
After an empty frame in the ninth for UH, senior reliever Matt Valencia protected the 'Bows, striking out the side on 12 pitches.
Moving to the 10th freshman catcher Rios squared a 2-2 pitch from O'Neil, firing a leadoff home run to center field – the first of his young career – and the go-ahead run for the 'Bows.
Despite a walk in the bottom half, Valencia shut the door, closing out the win on a double play ball.
Valencia (3-0) earned the victory, pitching 2.0 innings with no hits and only one walk, striking out three. Starter Von Ruden went 6.1 innings before yielding to Lawrence Chew and Cody Culp.
Taking the loss for CSUN, O'Neil (4-3) went 3.2 innings, giving four hits and one run, walking three and striking out four.
At the plate, Rios went 3-for-5 on the afternoon with the game-winning long ball. Sheldon-Collins was 2-for-4 with two RBI, while Weeks was 2-for-5, scoring twice.
The Rainbow Warriors and Matadors return to action in the rubber game on Sunday at Matador Stadium. First pitch is set for 1:00 p.m. PDT (10:00 a.m. HT).