In August of 2014, an unknown high school baseball player from Santa Clarita toured local colleges putting on a show. For one of the coaches watching, UC Irvine’s Mike Gillespie, each crack of the bat felt like a personal disappointment.
Gillespie is a baseball lifer. He was a resident of Santa Clarita for many years. His roots stretch deep into its baseball community. He knew the dimensions of its parks, knew where the winds turned fly balls to left into home runs. But even he had never heard of this batter, a shortstop from Valencia named Keston Hiura.
“Even the people that lived there that you would trust really had not recognized what he could become,” Gillespie said. “That's the truth of the matter. Everyone knew he was a good kid and there's a lot to like, but to say that he was going to become what he's become? Nobody knew that.”
What Hiura has become is arguably the best college hitter in the Southland. As a junior, he is a preseason All-American. On Baseball America’s list of college-age pro prospects, pitcher Griffin Canning of UCLA is the only local player ranked ahead of Hiura.
Hiura’s presence makes Irvine a threat in the Big West Conference, where No. 8 Cal State Fullerton, No. 19 UC Santa Barbara and No. 20 Long Beach State stand as early favorites and the only three ranked teams from the Southland when the season starts this week.
When Hiura was in high school, professional scouts ignored him entirely. He was 5 feet 11 and about 160 pounds with good instincts and a nice swing but little pop. UC Davis and San Diego recruited him, but he still had to lobby for himself as the early signing period approached.
"I kind of pushed on Irvine toward the end,” Hiura said. “They came on a little late.”
Before he signed, Hiura said he’d hit just one or two home runs at Valencia. In his senior season, he led the state.
However, Gillespie knew Valencia’s park was friendly to right-handed power. Irvine’s was different.
"This is the John Savage Memorial Graveyard," Gillespie said, gesturing to the field. Savage, who is alive and coaching UCLA, helped design the pitcher-friendly confines of Anteater Ballpark when he was running Irvine’s program. It has a 12-foot fence all the way around, the near-the-ocean air is heavy, and the center field fence is 408 feet from home plate.
“This will be my 10th year here, and there might have been four balls hit over that fence [during games] in nine years,” Gillespie said.
Hiura started hitting one out per day during practice.
"Boy,” Gillespie said, “in a hurry you could see that the power is real."
Moved to center field, Hiura added bulk and is now listed at 185 pounds. He was chosen a freshman All-American and last year, as a sophomore, hit .358 with seven home runs and 41 runs batted in over 53 games.
Midway through last season, Hiura injured his elbow on a throw to the plate and was shut down in the field. He continued hitting, but Gillespie said the injury probably diminished his output at the plate.
Hiura has seen Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic, received a platelet-rich plasma injection in early January and is expected to start the season as the Anteaters’ designated hitter. Gillespie doesn’t know where Hiura will play when he returns to the field, but he said it might be at second base to protect his arm.
Hiura said he was willing to play anywhere he’s needed. But his defensive position is an open question among scouts.
“I still view myself as more comfortable as an infielder,” ideally a second baseman, Hiura said.
Hiura hit his way onto the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, which toured to Asia and Cuba over the summer.
Oregon Coach George Horton, who managed the U.S. team, said Hiura had been a lock before his injury. But there was room for only one designated hitter, and Luken Baker had led Texas Christian, this season’s preseason No. 1 team, in home runs as a 6-4, 265-pound freshman.
Still, Hiura was given a shot.
“Quite honestly,” Horton said, “he beat Luken out.”
Hiura validated the decision in the deciding game of a three-game series against Cuba. With the score tied, 1-1, Hiura hit a game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning.
The decision was a gamble, Horton explained. He didn’t know if Hiura would see a strike.
“The Cubans had so much respect for him that they walked him in RBI situations because he’d put on such a show in batting practice,” Horton said.
The word on Hiura was out.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand