Not How He Drew It Up

Alex Yee/New University

A right-handed hitting senior strutted to the plate at Cicerone Field, 4:12 into an April 19 game against the University of San Diego, as the Anteaters were down to their last out in the bottom of the 12th inning.

A long journey had brought Drew Hillman to the batter’s box that evening, but in a career that has ranged from swinging a yellow plastic bat at a white Wiffle Ball that his grandmother used to toss him underhand in the front yard, to cementing himself into the record books at a perennial contending Orange County high school, to winning a junior college state championship, the 6-foot, 195-pound ballplayer from Lake Forest had never experienced one of the most gratifying moments in baseball: hitting a walk-off home run.

In the bottom of the 10th, Hillman faced USD’s lefty Paul Paez and missed an opportunity.

“He hung a curveball and I popped it up to third base,” Hillman said. “I wanted another chance at that guy.”

When hitters are zoned in at the plate, a baseball leaving the pitcher’s hand can look as big as a beach ball, and that had been the case for Hillman against the Toreros.

At 10:47 p.m. against USD, Hillman got another chance at Paez, down 7-6. The starting left fielder had the tying run on first after senior teammate Brian Hernandez stroked a 3-2 single to right field.

No. 7 fixed his batting gloves, cleared out the gravel in the box with his right foot, assuming his familiar upright batting stance.

Keying in on the pitch, Hillman drove a 2-1 middle-in fastball out of the ballpark. The updated scoreboard, which had run out of space to document the extra inning affair, changed from a 7-6 Toreros lead to an 8-7 Anteater victory. Hillman finalized the longest game of UC Irvine’s season as the Toreros walked off the diamond empty-handed. Hillman rounded the bases, while his teammates surrounded home plate.

“I definitely wasn’t going to jump on home plate after seeing that one guy [Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales] break his leg after hitting a walk-off [last year],” Hillman said. “I still got mauled by everybody, but it was worth it.”

The big fly was Hillman’s fourth home run of the year, matching his total from the 2010 season. Hitting an impressive .347 at the dish, second to just Hernandez on the team, Hillman’s four home runs lead the club, as do his 37 RBIs on a 31-13 squad that is fighting for a spot in the postseason.

The walk-off was the icing on the cake to a short UCI career that has had its ups and downs, but as the postseason draws near, he hopes he can top it off in the Regionals and, better yet, the College World Series.

An El Toro High School alumnus, Hillman set the career and single-season records for doubles for the Chargers. He also impressed on the hardwood, playing all four years on El Toro’s basketball team, before deciding on baseball to be his main focus his senior year.

Graduating alongside a number of players who were drafted out of high school, Hillman stayed local and played baseball at Orange Coast College from 2008-2009, intending to eventually transfer to a four-year baseball powerhouse.

The highlight of Hillman’s career thus far was playing at the hot corner for OCC. A natural third baseman who has been forced into the outfield due to a third baseman overload at UCI, OCC placed him at third upon arrival, where he became a two-time All-American.

As a sophomore in 2009, Hillman and his teammates won the state championship. Hillman batted .353 that year, with 53 RBIs, 11 home runs and three triples, while setting OCC’s career and single-season marks for doubles. Sound familiar?

When Hillman arrived at UCI, he did so expecting to eventually succeed Hernandez at third base. However, a mix-up with transferrable units led Hernandez to take the five-year college route and hindered Hillman’s progress as an infielder.

In his first season as an Anteater, Hillman struggled to break into the lineup behind a veteran core of third basemen and outfielders. Ryan Fisher, a member of this group of veterans can likely relate to the frustration Hillman has faced when feeling out of place in the outfield. Fisher hit .308 with four home runs as an outfielder before being drafted as a third baseman last year and leaving a year before his eligibility ended.

Hillman plans to reclaim his natural position, like Fisher did last summer, if given the opportunity to experience the long, hot bus trips that are characteristic of minor league baseball.

In 2010, Hillman hit .352, the second-highest average on the Anteaters, while playing in just 34 of the team’s 60 games. Irvine was hard-pressed to locate a position in the field for their consistent hitter who had a team-high .582 slugging percentage.

The Regionals at UCLA proved to be a turning point in Hillman’s UCI career. After sporadic plate appearances, Hillman was given starts in the postseason, and he took advantage, making the All-Regional team, hitting .533 and crushing two home runs in four games.

“I wasn’t playing a whole lot and I didn’t want to be taken out,” Hillman said.

With Hernandez maintaining his position at third this season, the only time Hillman gets to play his natural position is when Hernandez comes in to pitch, but despite the competition, the two players respect each other’s abilities.

“[Drew] is a huge part of our team and really brings a lot to the table. He shows up every day to work hard,” Hernandez said. “It’s nice to hit in front of him in the lineup,” he added, referring to the better selection of pitches that he receives with Hillman’s dangerous bat in the on-deck circle.

The feeling was mutual for Hillman, who explained that Hernandez has flourished in the No. 3 spot in the order and helped solidify a lineup that is solid one through nine.

For a player leading one of the nation’s top 25 teams in home runs and runs batted in, it’s atypical to dream of a route that strays from the path of big league stardom. Despite his desire to carry out a professional career in the minor leagues, the lifelong Orange County resident is reluctant to leave the beach community.

“It’s hard to leave here,” said Hillman, who shares an apartment in Irvine with designated hitter Jordan Leyland. “You can’t really beat the weather and the beach.”

When Hillman eventually hangs up his cleats, he would like to manage a junior college baseball team, preferably his former team at OCC. Having dealt with the frustrations of being unable to win the favor of Manager Mike Gillespie as a third baseman, Hillman hopes the mental notes he has taken throughout the years will pay off when he eventually manages.

“You take the good and the bad from each coach and learn from what they do,” Hillman said. “It’d be a dream come true to coach at OCC and make it as fun as possible for players like me who take the [junior college] route.”