Kaalekahi spent parts of two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League, encountering some off-field trouble along the way. But on the mound for Pulaski, he's throwing with such authority that he's become one of the top pitchers in the circuit.
"I would say command is one of the biggest [improvements]," he said. "I'm able to throw a change-up for strikes now."
Kaalekahi, a native of Hawaii who's referred to as "Kale," said he's applying the lessons he learned during 2010 and 2011 assignments in Arizona. Motivated to find his way to another level, he said he hopes he's making the right kind of impression.
"It's just rough staying there [in Arizona]," he said. "I was just pumped to be anywhere but Arizona. I got stuck there for a little bit. They told me I need to stay there to grab some innings."
With three weeks left in the Appalachian League season, he ranks third in both innings pitched (47 2/3) and ERA (2.27).
"He's throwing everything for a strike," Pulaski catcher Tyler Marlette said. "His approach has been really good. ... He's definitely all attitude. He goes, 'I'm a man and I'm going to get you out.' It's starting to rub off on other pitchers, too."
Kaalekahi has been exclusively a starter this year after making 13 of his 20 appearances his first two years out of the bullpen.
"I like being a starter," he said. "I'm not much of a power pitcher."
Kaalekahi's profile rose as a teenager when he played in a USA Baseball event in Cary, N.C. He was committed to play for the University of Hawaii but instead took the offer from the parent Seattle Mariners after he was drafted in the 15th round in 2010.
"It took me 10 minutes [to sign]," he said, referring to how anxious he was to start a professional career.
But during his first summer in Arizona, a hotel incident led to a team suspension and he spent about a month back home in Hawaii. He was fearful that this might derail his career. But he said, with pressure from his parents to make it right, he channeled the detour into something to build on.
"I got all my bad stuff out first," Kaalekahi said of the setback. "It has been kind of hard, but I'm still trying to fight through it."
A long night and then some: The Pulaski Mariners were on the losing end of a 12-9 decision in 23 innings to the Princeton Rays on Aug. 2-3, but it didn't discourage the Mariners. They won a regularly scheduled nine-inning game Aug. 3 against Princeton, then knocked off the first-place Burlington Royals, who had been rained out Aug. 3, the next night, 16-4.
"We're still tired," Pulaski second baseman Felipe Burin said. "We tried to look good, but we feel tired. That's baseball, we love it."
Kaalakahi was charting the marathon game for the first 18 innings. "I was actually hoping we'd break the record if we're going to go that long," he said.
Becoming a hit: There's a reason that switch-hitting second baseman Ildemaro Vargas, who's among the top 10 in the league in batting, has helped the Johnson City Cardinals win 10 of 12 games and move back into contention in the West Division.
"He has done a great job against lefties, just as good as righties," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told the Johnson City Press. "So he's going to have good success at this level."
Coming full circle: Right-hander Christian Binford of the Burlington Royals notched his first victory in his fifth professional appearance, yielding three runs in six innings against Pulaski. He didn't allow a run across the first five innings, but Binford, who has overcome Tommy John surgery, said he might have been stronger at the end nonetheless. "I almost felt better the last couple of innings than earlier," he said.
Eating up innings: Left-hander Todd Kibby of the Bristol White Sox took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in the opening game of a doubleheader at Bluefield. Kibby lost the no-hit bid when Jorge Vega-Rosado singled in the eventual 6-2 victory. Kibby became the league's second pitcher with two complete games, both of the seven-inning variety, though he also has an eight-inning outing to his credit.