A Double-A All-Star in 2010, Wingnuts infielder Jake Kahaulelio has a pedigree that suggests his plan to play independent baseball for a month before returning to affiliated ball this spring was realistic.
Well before that timetable expired, however, Kahaulelio discovered a renewed passion for the game he has always loved.
After getting worn down by the uphill nature of affiliated ball during five seasons in the Cincinnati Reds organization, where he was a Southern League All-Star with Carolina two years ago, Kahaulelio has channeled his inner child playing for a team that has won eight games in a row.
The Wingnuts start a seven-game homestand Friday night against Grand Prairie. They swept three-game series at Gary-Southshore and Fargo-Morehead after winning two against New Jersey at home last week. Kahaulelio, Wichita’s 26-year-old second baseman, is batting .357.
"My attitude has completely changed," Kahaulelio said. "This baseball right now, what I’m doing, reminds me of when I was 12 and when I was in high school because you have fun. I’ve always had fun playing, but there’s always been pressure in affiliated ball — there’s a guy behind you trying to take your spot or you’re trying to get to the next level.
"Here, you just play. I have fun with the guys off the field, I come to the park with a smile on my face and I hit (batting practice) with a smile on my face with no worries. No worries."
Kahaulelio has often been one to just play. He’s never been caught up in where he bats in the lineup because his versatility lends itself to almost any spot.
Kahaulelio’s combination of bat-handling ability, gap power and speed could play anywhere but perhaps best fit the No. 2 spot, where Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper moved Kahaulelio from the bottom of the order after five games.
With sure hands and reliable feet, Kahaulelio’s defensive options are hardly limited, but he’s settled in at second base with the Wingnuts, giving them what Hooper calls the team’s best middle-infield combination yet with shortstop Ryan Khoury.
"I think learning every position is always a plus because it gets you in the lineup," Kahaulelio said. "When I talked to (Hooper) over the phone before I signed with this team, he said, ’I want you to play second base.’ I love playing second base — it’s one of my favorite positions, so I was all aboard.
"He said, ’What part of the order do you want to hit?’ I said, ’I’ll hit wherever you want and I’ll adapt to whatever.’ The confidence putting me in the No. 2 hole, and then me producing, it makes him look good. He made a good decision, and I don’t want to hurt the team at all. If I’m not hitting, I have no problem with scooting down the lineup and switching with someone who is."
Kahaulelio’s experience with the Reds nearly fell apart before it began. After signing as a 20th-round pick from Oral Roberts in 2007, Kahaulelio tore his anterior cruciate ligament on his second day of camp. Without the security of a major investment by the Reds, Kahaulelio nearly fell off their radar while he rehabilitated.
He didn’t play a full minor-league season until 2010, when in Kahaulelio’s All-Star campaign he batted .257 with 13 homers for Carolina. With his eye on the major leagues three years before, being recognized for his consistency after a major injury satisfied Kahaulelio and completed his comeback story.
"It was nice to finally be breaking out of my shell and noticed," Kahaulelio said. "I’m really a quiet guy, I’m not about the rah-rah and, ’Look, I did this,’ but I’m not going to lie, when you get noticed it really does touch your heart. It makes me feel good that I worked hard enough to get this."
Plenty of recognition has come from Kahaulelio’s hot start, but he’s also blending in as one of six Wingnuts regulars batting .300 or better. His brief time in Wichita has returned Kahaulelio to the joy of his youth while significantly altering his goals.
"This year I would love to win a ring," Kahaulelio said. "That’s one of my big-time goals _ have fun and win a ring. However I can help the team, whether I’m hitting second, fifth or ninth, as long as we win it puts a smile on my face."
Roster moves — The Wingnuts re-signed third baseman Juan Richardson, who batted .360 with 12 homers and 86 RBIs for Wichita last season. Richardson was recently released by Ciudad del Carmen of the Mexican League. Wichita traded infielder Jared McDonald to Lincoln for cash considerations and released catcher Salomon Manriquez. The team also signed pitcher Robert Roth to replace closer Josh Dew, who was signed by the Mexican League.