Yugo Hamakawa was a sophomore in high school when he decided he was going to play college baseball in the United States.
Hamakawa, while attending Tokyo’s Sayamagaoka High in his native Japan, would stay up late to catch Major League Baseball games on television and watch America’s best, including his favorite player Munenori Kawasaki.
That inspired Hamakawa to follow the path across the Pacific Ocean, and now he’s helping lead the Edmonds Community College Tritons into the Northwest Athletic Conference Baseball Championship.
The NWAC tournament begins Thursday in Longview, and Hamakawa and the Tritons are right in the mix of contenders for the championship.
“It’s been great,” Hamakawa said about his season with Edmonds, with assistant coach Ron Omori providing translation assistance on some of the more challenging questions. “We’ve had lots of wins, and the best part is winning a lot of close games.”
Edmonds is one of the most storied baseball programs in NWAC, having won eight championships to join Lower Columbia (11 titles) and Yakima Valley (eight) in the holy trinity of Washington State community college baseball schools.
This year Edmonds once again finds itself among the favorites. The Tritons went 19-5 in the North Region and 38-7 overall, winning the region by an astonishing six games to earn an automatic berth to NWACs. Edmonds is ranked No. 3 in the NWAC coaches poll and No. 4 in RPI.
Hamakawa played a important role in that success. The freshman starts at shortstop and bats in the No. 3 spot in the lineup. This season he’s hitting .299 with one home run and 26 RBI, getting on base at a .423 clip.
“He’s been really good,” Edmonds coach Scott Kelly said. “Honestly, I don’t think he’s been as good as he can be. I think when he’s completely comfortable with the style of play and he gets older, I think we’re going to see an unbelievable player, maybe one of the best players ever to come out of Edmonds because of his knowledge of the game, how he moves, and what he can do.”
So how does a player from Japan end up playing at Edmonds CC?
There’s a program in Japan that brings prospective players to the United States to tour junior college programs and try out. One of the individuals involved in the program is Suguru Homma, who pitched for Edmonds in 2012-13. Therefore, Edmonds tends to be one of the schools the players get directed toward. Last year’s tour resulted in Hamakawa and pitcher Ryoma Ueda becoming Tritons.
“I picked Edmonds because it has great coaches in Ron and Scott,” said Hamakawa, who tried out for five colleges along the west coast.
“Here, Ron says to always swing hard,” Hamakawa added. “In Japanese baseball it’s not like that. I’m short and small, small guys just hit the opposite way. Here I like that I get to swing.”
Hamakawa and Ueda arrived at Edmonds last March. That allowed the pair to get their English-learning classes completed in 2017, freeing up the time to play for the baseball team this season. It also broke down the communication barrier with their teammates, and Hamakawa has fit right in.
“Everyone loves him,” sophomore first baseman Evan Hurn said. “Everyone on the team, everyone at the school, he has a bunch of fans. He’s a great guy to have in the clubhouse, it’s really fun to watch him. He came in not knowing much and we’ve been teaching him about what American culture is like. He’s fit in really well with the group.”
As the shortstop, Hamakawa has been a key component of the source of Edmonds’ success: pitching and defense. The Tritons reached their lofty perch because of their run prevention, as Edmonds is second in NWAC in team ERA at 1.82. The Tritons allowed just 91 runs in their 45 games.
Looking at Edmonds’ individual pitching stats is like examining a staff from MLB’s dead-ball era. The Tritons have six pitchers who have thrown double-digit innings with ERAs below 2.00. Sophomore right- hander Elliot Carney (10-2, 1.44 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 81 innings) and freshman right-hander Will Smith (7-1, 1.15 ERA, 64 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings) have led the way, but the Tritons’ staff is strong throughout, a quality that will be invaluable come tournament time when a team could end up playing six games in five days.
“I think we’ve been really good,” Carney said about the pitching staff. “We’ve thrown a lot of strikes, the coaches put a good plan out for us and given us a good assessment of the opposing lineup. We go in there and our job is just to execute pitches, throw a lot of strikes and pitch to contact.”
Offensively Edmonds has gotten back to its roots. After being more of a power-hitting team last year, the Tritons have gotten back to small ball this season, and it’s worked. Sophomore center fielder Guthrie Morrison (.369, 24 stolen bases) sets the tone at the top of the order. The Tritons hope Hurn (.350, four homers, 38 RBI), the biggest presence in the middle of the lineup, is able to play after suffering a thumb injury while making a tag late in the season.
Edmonds is hoping it all adds up to its first NWAC title since 2014.
“I like our chances as much as anybody,” Kelly said. “Our bracket is tough, but so is the North. We play tough teams all the time and it sets us up for this tournament.”
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