Keston Hiura: Absolute Power

Keston Hiura was on a roll.  Since breaking out in his senior season at Valencia High School in 2014, he had parlayed his success on the baseball diamond into a stellar freshman campaign at UC Irvine where he led the Anteaters with 52 RBIs, to go with seven home runs and a .330 batting average on his way to being named a Freshman All-American.  His sophomore season proved a suitable encore, as he led the team in all major offensive categories, and the now-junior is climbing up draft boards and putting the college baseball world on notice.  Entering the 2017 season, he was named Preseason All-American by nearly all major college baseball publications including D1 Baseball, Perfect Game USA, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

 But in April of last year, a routine play in the outfield threatened to halt his career before it even got started.

Hiura singled up the middle in the first inning against San Diego State at Tony Gwynn Stadium, extending his streak of games in which he reached base safely to 49.  In the following frame, Hiura fielded a base hit in centerfield as an Aztec baserunner rounded third looking to score.  He reared back and fired towards home as the runner crossed the plate just beating the throw.

Feels a little weird, thought Hiura, referring to his elbow.  It wasn’t until the next inning that the pain really set in.

The diagnosis was an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain, effectively sidelining Hiura for the foreseeable future.  UCL injuries have become increasingly more common in baseball players, usually affecting pitchers more than position players.  While pitchers struggle to maintain fastball velocity after a tear or sprain, Hiura could lessen the blow by moving to an infield position to avoid undue stress on his elbow.  As a high school shortstop, Hiura would be more than comfortable with that scenario, but would have to wait until the sprain healed to play the field anytime soon.  Miraculously, it didn’t bother him when he hit, so he could still contribute as a designated hitter, a role that took him some time to accept.

“It’s difficult to adjust to,” said Hiura.  “All you’re doing is hitting.  If you have a bad at-bat, you can’t go out on the field and immediately forget about it.”

He still led the team his sophomore year with a .358 batting average, seven home runs and 41 RBIs, but struggled after making the switch and concluded conference play hitting .205 with only 10 RBI.  

As he looked forward to returning to the infield, another setback struck Hiura.  Last November, he tweaked his elbow again while throwing in practice, which turned out to be a re-sprain of the UCL; playing the field would elude Hiura yet again.

This time, Hiura and the team decided to take more drastic action towards his recovery as his junior season approached, his last before draft eligibility.  In January, Hiura received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection into his elbow in an effort to get him out on the field at some point around midseason.  During a PRP procedure, the blood is taken out and transfused with nutrients and growth factors and re-injected into the affected area, which is supposed to hasten the healing process and heal scar tissue quicker.  Hiura felt a good amount of pain and soreness for weeks before his elbow started to feel better, and was finally able to swing about a week before the season started in February.

Throughout his tenure as an Anteater, Hiura has had a penchant for starting the season hot.  Although he dealt with the injury issues immediately prior to opening day, nobody really doubted this season would be any different.  Hiura proved them right.  Through the first 11 games of the 2017 slate, he flirted with a staggering 1.000 slugging percentage with four home runs and 17 RBIs.  The Anteaters compiled a 7-4 record during the span, and had a chance to prove they belonged on the big stage with their next opponent: #1 Texas Christian University.

The Horned Frogs had validated their preseason national number one ranking, sporting an 11-1 record as they made the trip to Irvine.  The TCU faithful traveled well as a smattering of purple shirts, caps and jerseys filled the stands at Anteater Ballpark on the mid-March Friday evening.  A lineup dotted with pro prospects was met by a UCI team that showed enthusiasm rather than fear.

“It’s definitely something that everyone on the team is looking forward to,” said Hiura before the game.  “We’re all excited for that to happen, and to hopefully prove that we’re capable of playing with the best teams in the country.”

The matchup began with a fairly routine top of the first as the leadoff TCU batter walked before the next three were retired in succession.  Anything routine about the game ended with the top of the first inning.  The Anteaters’ first inning at the bat saw 13 batters come up, and ended with the home team up 8-0.  The fans wearing purple had gone mute, as if they had been punched in the gut.

In his second at-bat of the inning, Hiura drove in the eighth and final run of the frame after pulling a double down the left field line, and the rout was officially on.  The Horned Frogs were able to muster two runs in the fourth inning, but the Anteater pitchers shut the door and the bats added another insurance run in the fifth.  After blanking TCU again the following inning, Hiura was due up second in the bottom half of the frame.

As junior utility man Devin Pettengill dug in to face Horned Frog hurler Jake Eissler, Hiura sauntered to the on-deck circle, both hands tightly gripping his bat taking short, choppy cuts.  As Eissler delivered, Hiura timed his swing with the speed of the pitch, sending an imaginary offering into the trees beyond the outfield wall.  A sign of things to come.  Pettengill grounded out to short and Hiura stepped to the plate.  Standing just a shade under six feet with a stocky build, his appearance belies the power of his bat.  Thin traces of a moustache line the upper lip of his round face, with his steely eyes transfixed on Eissler.  Ball one.  Ball two.  On the third pitch of the at-bat, Eissler threw a breaking ball that hung in the strike zone a little too long.  Hiura recreated the swing in the on-deck circle, and blasted the pitch into the trees beyond the left field wall.  UCI 10, TCU 2.  The Anteaters would tack on another run in the inning and stun the #1 team in the nation 11-2, with two games left in the series.

The following day’s game started much the same way for TCU, three-up, three-down.  The bottom half of the first went a little differently for the Anteaters.  This time, they only managed to hang four runs on the #1 squad.  But the pace settled down and TCU methodically clawed back into the contest, scoring one run in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings to make it a one-run game at 4-3.  UCI was able to score on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the seventh, and with two outs, Hiura stepped to the plate.  With two strikes and runners on the corners, he poked a base hit to the opposite field for an RBI.  As the right fielder charged the blooper, Hiura showcased the speed that put him second in stolen bases on the team the year prior.  His feet-first slide into second gave him his 16th extra base hit of the year, out of 22 total hits.  The home team upset TCU one more time 6-3, and Hiura evened his slugging percentage at 1.000 as the ‘Eaters moved to 9-4.

With the series clinched, UCI made the statement they sought to make.  According to Head Coach Mike Gillespie, it’s not the least bit surprising.

“We certainly were excited to play them,” said Gillespie.  “But they needed no extra push, they know who [TCU] is, and we have good players too.”

It’s Gillespie’s steady hand that helps guide his bunch through the stiff competition they face all year, and it’s fair to say that he’s had some experience.  This season will mark Gillespie’s 46th as a college coach, and his tenth at UCI following stints at USC and College of the Canyons.  He won a national championship playing for the Trojans in 1961, and become one of two people in history to win a championship as a player and coach when he led his alma mater to a title in 1998.  When a figure of Gillespie’s stature believes enough in Hiura’s ability to recruit and recognize his talent, it might just have some merit.  It was Gillespie’s presence that helped draw Hiura to UCI in the first place.

“Anyone that knows baseball knows who Mike Gillespie is,” said Hiura.  “When I came here to visit I got along with all the coaches really well, and I was able to talk with Gillespie one-on-one and breakdown everything.”

They actually share a geographical connection, since College of the Canyons where Gillespie coached is in Valencia, where Hiura grew up and played high school ball.  They were able to bond and reminisce about certain places and people from their respective times there.

“Everyone either played with Skip, played against him, or knows of him,” said Hiura.  “His track record from [College of the Canyons] to USC to [UCI] is a big reason why I decided to come here.”

Growing up in Valencia, Hiura dabbled in several sports, and learned quickly that he excelled on the diamond.  His father Kirk owns a pharmacy in Glendale, while his mother Janice works as a supervisor for the California State Board of Pharmacy, but both encouraged Hiura to choose his own path.  He followed the MLB closely as a youngster and grew up a Dodger fan, soaking up a game at Dodger Stadium whenever he could.  When it came time to narrow down his athletic interests to one sport in high school, Hiura saw himself progressing the furthest in baseball and eyed a future playing collegiately.

When assembling his list of potential colleges to attend, UCI placed high due to its academic reputation in addition to Gillespie and the baseball program.  But even Gillespie will tell you he was late to realize Hiura’s upside, despite his connection to the Valencia area.

Hiura was actually only recruited by three colleges during his junior year of high school, most likely due to his atypical size for a power hitter and lack of true bona fide production.  He was a stout collegiate prospect, but few predicted he would breakout the way that he has.  With a concrete goal of playing college ball, Hiura wanted to sign with a school during the early signing period before his senior season so he wouldn’t have to feel the pressure of performing during his final year.

The approach paid off.  After a modest power output in his first three years, Hiura led the state in home runs his senior season, and has been riding the streak ever since.  With the stress of attracting colleges effectively gone he could go out and focus on what he loved to do, enjoy the game.  He carried that mentality into UCI as a freshman, and continued to mash his way into the lineup.  His ability at the plate coupled with a willingness to help the team in whatever way he could led to a starting spot for the Anteaters in his first year.

“They moved me to left field to get me into the lineup because of my bat,” said Hiura.  “I was completely fine with that.  The goal is to be in that starting lineup, doesn’t matter where they put you or where you want to play.”

His progression from freshman phenom to professional prospect has gone smoothly even considering the UCL hiccup, as Hiura has learned to master the DH role.  He credits his tour with the USA National Collegiate Baseball Team last summer with improving his comfort level at that spot and learning to make the most out of the compromising position.

He was chosen for the team during his sophomore season, but his elbow issues sparked questions.  Instead of a guaranteed outfield position, he was invited to tryout and compete for the DH slot.  On a roster with half of the 23 openings reserved for pitchers, the chances were slim to make the team; he would need to put on a show at the trials.

Among the college game’s best hitters, Hiura’s star shined brightest, as he beat out other hopefuls for a chance to represent the country.  The squad competed across the nation against other collegiate all-star teams for the first half of the schedule, including a game in Dodger Stadium, a venue that a young Hiura visited countless times to watch his favorite team play.

“Really cool,” said Hiura, “Instead of being in the stands being on the field.  Definitely something I’m not going to forget.”

After the US tour they hit the road to Taiwan to face the Chinese Taipei team and traveled to Japan to take on the Japanese team.  On their final stop abroad, the US found themselves in Cuba, where they had never won a series and were swept five games to none the last time they met in 2014.  Both teams were able to capture two wins in the first four games, setting the stage for the rubber match and giving the US a chance to make history.  For Hiura, it was a chance to remind the coaches that they had made the right decision.

Hiura watched as the game wore on, each team pushing across a single run through seven innings, as he waited for his name to be called.  Cuba pitcher Livan Moinelo was mowing down batters, and the US needed a spark.

“I knew the possibility of pinch hitting late in the game might come up,” said Hiura, “and I was laser focused.  I was watching the opposing pitcher, staying warm throughout the whole thing, and when I got my name called I was locked in.”

Hiura was sent to pitch-hit in the top of the eighth, ready to do damage.  He sent a 2-2 offering high over the wall in the left field, the only homer by either team in the series, to lift the US over Cuba and end the summer tour on the highest of notes.  Moinelo was tagged with the loss, despite striking out six and giving up only one hit in his four innings of work—Hiura’s homer.  For Hiura, the pressure is just an opportunity to perform.

“You know the situation and what’s at stake,” he said, “Our coach mentioned before that we’ve never won a series on Cuban soil.  That game five with the series tied 2-2 was definitely a big game for us.  Everyone on that team wanted to win.  It was like that on the whole tour but especially that game, last game of the summer, with a chance to make history in Cuba.”

The national team experience is just another milestone on his road to become a professional baseball player.  Only about 8% of collegiate ballplayers will go on to be drafted by a major league team, much less carve out a years-long career as a professional.  Of all that have played baseball for UC Irvine, only a small handful have ever cracked a pro club, with only one (Brady Anderson) sticking around for more than five years.  Hiura is on track to be an outlier in both of those situations.  He sits at number 20 in Baseball America’s list of top 100 college prospects, and is the sixth highest position player based on his production in his first two seasons as an Anteater.

“I’ve talked to a good amount of teams,” said Hiura.  “[2016] was definitely a big year, and I was able to make that statement.  The idea of possibly playing professional baseball came into play, especially with the summer I was able to solidify that I’m able to play at the next level with some of the best players around the world.”

He has made good on the preseason accolades thus far, in the midst of yet another successful start.  This time, he looks to compound it with an even better finish.

“I’ve started off the season hot in every year, but what makes this year a little different is I want to finish that way.  I’ve kind of teetered off at the end in previous seasons but this year I definitely want to set a goal on finishing strong.”

Pro ball is on Hiura’s mind moving forward, but the main goal for him is getting healthy and seizing the opportunity to get back out on the field.  He will soon start a throwing program that will ideally end with him playing defense before the end of the year.  Hiura will most likely start in the infield to protect further stress on his arm, but he is open to going wherever he is needed.  But pro ball and the draft can wait, his eyes are set on a more immediate goal: achieving greatness with his UCI teammates.

“At this moment I’m really focused on the season, and my performance by the end will really dictate what happens.  I’m just trying to take it game by game, and perform at a high level, trying to win ball games.”