On the eve of his team's three-game series against Hawaii, Cal State Northridge Coach Bill Kernen said he wanted to see a witch doctor.
In the aftermath of the Matadors' 9-8 victory Friday, it appears as if Kernen might still be seeking outside help, but at least he'll be asking why his team nearly blew a six-run lead instead of wondering how it lost its fifth consecutive game.
In a microcosm of its roller coaster season, Northridge (27-15, 9-10 in Western Athletic Conference play) built leads of 4-0, 8-3, and 9-3, then allowed the visiting Rainbows (30-18, 8-8) back into the game with a series of poor defensive plays.
"I'm sitting there watching (Hawaii's) five-run inning and I'm thinking, 'What can happen next?' " Kernen asked. "So many bad things have happened this season."
Along with losing two pitchers (one to injury, one to academic eligibility), Kernen lost assistant coach and friend Stan Sanchez, who departed amid controversy. As a result, he cannot help thinking that this isn't the Matadors' year.
"You do look over your shoulder wondering, 'What's gonna happen next?' " he said. "But you gotta fight that."
The Matadors found themselves fighting it in the seventh inning.
With Northridge ahead, 9-3, Hawaii's Jody Napuunoa led off the inning with a grounder that took a bad hop, hit shortstop Andy Hodgins in the shoulder and rolled past him.
It was Hodgins' fifth error in the last four games and 20th of the season.
The next batter, Tyler Cheff, reached safely as Andy Small had similar problems at third corralling the ball. It was Small's eighth error in nine games.
Corey Ishigo's single then loaded the bases.
Northridge right-hander Keven Kempton induced a pop out, but Franz Yuen reignited the rally with a single to right, driving in Napuunoa.
Kempton stopped the onslaught temporarily, striking out slugger Kenny Harrison, the WAC West's leading hitter.
The Rainbows were undeterred. Dean Hashimoto hit a sinking line drive that skipped past right fielder Greg Shepard to the fence for a two-run triple.
At that point, Kernen made a rare visit to the mound.
"I told Keven that there were some things happening that were out of his control," Kernen said. "I said, 'You still have a two-run lead and you need only seven outs. You're still holding the cards.' "
Although Shawn Rogers then stroked an RBI single that drew Hawaii within a run, Kempton maintained his composure.
He got out of the inning on a force out at second, then retired six of the next seven batters to notch his conference-leading 11th complete game.
Kempton (8-3) allowed only two earned runs while scattering 12 hits and striking out six.
"I kept telling myself, 'You're gonna do it,' " Kempton said. "I kept the ball down and I had confidence in my defense."
That defense, with Hodgins making the relay, ended the game with a double play.
In the fourth inning, Hodgins' two-run home run, a 400-foot blast, gave the Matadors an 8-3 lead. Earlier, he lined an RBI single to right field to extend his WAC hitting streak to seven games.
With four runs on four hits in the first inning, including Mike Sims' two-run single, and two hits and a two-out walk to load the bases in the second, the Matadors nearly knocked Hawaii starter Andrew McNally out of the game early.
But Keyaan Cook's inning-ending fly out to center stranded three runners and McNally regained control in the third inning.
Right fielder Greg Shepard ended a 1-for-14 slump with a double in the fourth and a single in the fifth. . . . Catcher Mike Sims went three for five and extended his hitting streak to 10 games, the longest by a Northridge player all season. . . . Although the field appeared to be in worse shape than usual, Northridge Coach Bill Kernen reasoned that it was just a case of the balls finding more of the holes and "Mataramps" (dropoffs between the infield and the outfield). On the three plays in which Northridge made errors, the balls took nasty hops. . . . Although Northridge needs to win all of its final WAC games (five more beginning with today's 1 p.m. game) to stay in conference title contention, Sims said that he and his teammates cannot look at it that way. "We're just going out there one game at a time," he said. "We're not banging our heads against the wall. We're relaxed. We're not putting pressure on ourselves. I think we play better this way."