On the final day of the major league baseball season in 1941, Boston Red Sox manager Joe Cronin told his outfielder Ted Williams that he could sit out his team’s doubleheader to preserve his benchmark batting average that would round up to .400, but officially sat at .39955. Williams balked at the notion, and the rest is history. He stepped up when the stakes were highest, batting title on the line and went 6-8 on the day and finished the year at .406, the last time anyone has recorded the vaunted mark.
Head Coach Mike Gillespie did not offer junior Keston Hiura the option to sit out his final contest to preserve his Division I national batting title, but if given the choice he never would, and completed his last game in an Anteater uniform going 5-5 to raise his average to .442, creating a chasm between himself and second place in true Williams fashion.
“He’s beyond special; I don’t know what the right adjective is,” said Gillespie. “We’ve been really lucky to have him and witness what this guy’s done and it’s been spectacular. To suggest that we might miss him would just be a wild understatement.”
In all likelihood, Hiura will be drafted in the first round of June’s MLB Draft, but he has left an indelible mark on the program and its players in just three years of action, smashing the previous UCI-record for single season batting average (.403), and setting the club record for career doubles as well at 54.
“He’s the best hitter in college baseball,” said senior shortstop Mikey Duarte, “Easily, by far the best player I’ve ever played with…you learn from everybody, but this guy is the best player I’ve ever seen.”
In Hiura’s first two years, he enjoyed hot starts to the season but struggled to keep up the torrid pace into conference play and the grind of the season. It was an issue he seems to have solved this year as he posted career highs in doubles (24), home runs (8), batting average (.442), slugging percentage (.693), and on-base percentage (.567).
“I had a lot of ups and downs this season,” said Hiura, “But that was my goal, to finish strong and finish proud with my team.”
Despite Hiura’s heroics, the ‘Eaters suffered from extended losing streaks throughout the season and struggled to hold on to leads late in games. Gillespie, who has coached Division I baseball since 1987, has treated the disappointment not as a learning experience, but rather a reminder.
“You just can’t work on things enough,” said Gillespie, “The things that get boring that you have to do, relentlessly, over and over the right way, you got to do them over and over the right way.”
The ‘Eaters (23-33, 9-15) were able to take the final series of the year against visiting UC Davis (21-30, 10-14) and end the season on a high note, taking the first two games 2-1, and 6-5, before falling 11-9 in the season finale.
Two runs in the first inning proved to be the difference in Thursday’s pitcher’s duel, as the ‘Eaters held on for a 2-1 win in the series opener at Anteater Ballpark.
Junior Louis Raymond brought his win total to five on the year by shutting down the Aggies over seven innings, allowing seven hits and one earned run, walking one and striking out four.
Raymond nearly made it through seven shutout innings but gave up a single and an RBI-double in succession to allow Davis to cut UCI’s lead to 2-1.
Freshman Andre Pallante came on in relief to protect the one-run lead in the eighth, and escaped a one-out bases loaded jam as the ‘Eaters turned two to shut down the threat. A 1-2-3 ninth inning gave Pallante his second save of the season.
The UCI bats got going right away, with Hiura singling home senior Evan Cassolato after the first two batters of the game reached base, and junior Parker Coss added an RBI-single of his own later in the first inning.
Hiura and senior Mikey Duarte paced the ‘Eater offense with two hits apiece, while Raymond lowered his conference ERA to 2.68, among the best in the Big West.
Drama was on hand for Friday’s game in a back-and-forth affair that saw the ‘Eaters respond to take the lead and hold on for the 6-5 victory for the series clincher.
Davis kicked off the scoring with solo shot in the first courtesy of junior Ryan Hooper, and senior Cameron Olson clubbed a two-run homer in the fifth after the batter ahead of him reached on an ‘Eater error.
UCI broke up a no-hitter in the fourth inning with a Hiura single, but a double play would negate the hit and avoid any threat of Davis’ 3-0 advantage.
The ‘Eaters were finally able to string some hits together in the bottom of the fifth, and freshman Christian Koss delivered an RBI-single with one out to bring home UCI’s first run. After a groundout that moved the runners to second and third, Cassolato came up big with a double in the gap to score both runners and bring the score level at 3-3.
In the next Aggie at-bat, Cassolato made a spectacular diving catch in center to rob an extra-base hit and preserve the momentum for the ‘Eaters.
Hiura led off the UCI half of the sixth with his 23rd double of the season and program-best 53rd of his career. He would come in to score off a sacrifice bunt and give the ‘Eaters their first lead of the ballgame.
Davis loaded the bases in the eighth with only one out, but could only manage one run on a sac fly before UCI stopped the bleeding with the score tied 4-4.
The ‘Eaters struck back immediately and loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the frame, and were able to push across two insurance runs on a walk and a sac fly to take a 6-4 lead into the final stanza.
The Aggies tacked on a final run with no outs in the ninth to come within one, but senior Calvin Faucher slammed the door and retired the next three batters in succession.
An inspired effort in their final contest of the year fell short for the ‘Eaters, and with the series in hand they could not complete the sweep, falling to the Aggies 11-9 in a barnburner finale.
The pent-up frustration from two consecutive one-run losses seemed to come out in the form of hits and runs scored for Davis, who tallied seven unanswered to take a 7-2 in the fourth inning.
UCI actually struck first, putting up two in the first inning after RBI-singles from Hiura and junior Cole Kreuter. Freshmen Cole Spear and Ryan Johnston faltered in the early going from the rubber, combining for five innings pitched and allowing nine runs (six earned).
An RBI-single from senior Alex Guenette and Duarte’s second career home run in the fourth and fifth innings respectively put the ‘Eaters back in the game, down 7-4. The Aggies responded with another three runs in the top of the sixth, seemingly putting the game out of reach.
Down 10-4, UCI fired back with a five-run inning to make it 10-9 as four ‘Eaters recorded an RBI including Hiura’s single season record tying 24th double that brought in two to score for the home team.
Davis was able to tack on an insurance run in the eighth, and the magic for the ‘Eaters ran out as they fell by a final score of 11-9.
Despite finishing the year at 23-33, and 9-15 in conference (seventh in Big West), Gillespie’s bunch looks to keep their expectations high, and maintain a positive outlook on next season.
“We’ll continue to do things fundamentally the right way,” said Gillespie, “There are enough new guys to be excited, there are enough returning guys that I think have the potential to improve dramatically to be excited, so we just got to bury this as best we can and move on.”
The 2017 MLB Draft will be broadcasted on MLB Network from June 12-14, as Hiura will most likely be the highest UCI player drafted in team history.
“I made a great decision to choose UCI,” said Hiura, “And I have no regrets, just really pleased with my time here.”