PHOENIX (AP) — All those swings, all those at-bats are paying off now for Keston Hiura.
The Milwaukee Brewers prospect who began working with a hitting coach when he was 9 connected for his first spring training home run on Friday, a two-run drive off veteran big leaguer Ricky Nolasco of Arizona.
“He’s a good hitter and took a breaking ball right there, first pitch breaking ball, and jumped on it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said.
Hiura was undrafted out of high school, but he kept hitting at the UC Irvine, batting .442 his junior year. That got the Brewers’ attention, and he was the first round draft pick in 2017.
“College was, by far, helpful, and not only on the baseball field but off the field as well, learning about myself, learning about life,” the 22-year-old infielder said.
Brewers infielder Mauricio Dubon heard about Hiura’s collegiate exploits from his father, who saw some UC Irvine games.
“He can hit, oh my goodness,” Dubon said. “My dad told me before he came into pro ball that Keston can hit. He hasn’t disappointed.”
Many years ago, Hiura met hitting coach Sean Thompson through a friend. The emphasis was on hitting to the opposite side of the field.
“I was always grateful I learned how to do that at a younger age,” the right-handed Hiura said. “I always felt it was harder to learn how to hit to the opposite field later in your career versus early in your career.”
As he got older, he got stronger and the power numbers developed. An elbow injury limited Hiura during the regular season last year — he batted a combined .293 with 52 extra-base hits in 73 games at Double-A and a High A level. He then competed in the Arizona Fall League and batted .323 with five home runs and 33 RBIs in 23 games.
“For me and for the Brewers as well, the big thing was to get as many reps as I can,” Hiura said. “The Fall League was some of the best baseball memories of my life. It’s a very laid back atmosphere — you can have fun. You’re playing with players from other organizations, you’re enjoying yourself and your time there.”
This is Hiura’s second big league spring training camp with the Brewers and Counsell is hoping he takes advantage of every at-bat.
“He’s just a player who needs to be out there,” Counsell said. “You have to trust and believe that Keston will improve as he gets reps and exposure. Keston needs to swing at the slider down to know that’s not going to work. Every player needs to go through that, they really do. You need to swing at that pitch to lay off that pitch. It’s a simple thing but it’s how you get better.”
Counsell has seen Hiura handle challenges well this spring.
“When I think of Keston’s at-bats against good pitching, I like to challenge him and see how he processes those at-bats,” Counsell said. “He’s been very consistent this spring and we’ve been able to be more consistent with his work. The goal is to put him in a healthy place at the start of the year and right now that’s where we’re at.”
While Hiura is still getting comfortable at second base, Counsell says it’s a good fit.
“He doesn’t have the arm strength that some guys have and we know that,” Counsell said. “As far as making plays and getting the ball, I’ve always been pretty comfortable with him.”
It’s Hiura’s hitting talents that stand out for his teammates.
“A lot of us go out there, and especially in spring training, more than the season, you worry about mechanics, getting this right, getting that right,” Brewers outfield prospect Corey Ray said. “He just gets out of bed and he’s had the same swing since he was 9. You go out there and get reps and you hit and can focus more on approach and what pitch you’re going to get and actually seeing the baseball and not worry about where your hands are or where your feet are and it makes you a better hitter.
“I think he just knows his swing,” Ray said. “As a baseball player, when you know your swing, the more you know your swing, the better you can focus on seeing the baseball. The better you can see the baseball, the better you’ll be.”
When Hiura started working with Thompson in California as a kid, he wasn’t thinking about making it to the big leagues.
“At that age, you’re just having fun and enjoying time with friends and playing as many sports as you can,” Hiura said.