Jake Hirabayashi was one of the best in the country at his position. Then, in an instant, he was thrown into something he’d never done before when he first walked onto the UCLA campus.
Hirabayashi was a heralded blue-chip prep player at Notre Dame High School in nearby Sherman Oaks, Calif., just a mere 6½ miles north of the UCLA campus. Hirabayashi was ranked the 85th-best player in the country and the fifth-best third baseman in the state of California for the Class of 2015.
When he got to UCLA, that’s where he expected to play.
He was recruited as an infielder. So you can imagine the look on his face when they told him that they wanted him to be a catcher.
To be fair, Hirabayashi had caught before ... in Little League.
Other than that, Hirabayashi had no experience behind the plate.
“It was surprising,” said Hirabayashi, who is in his second season with the Loggers. “I got recruited as an infielder, (Bruins) coach (John Savage) told me maybe once or twice you may catch, but it kind of came out of nowhere that I had to put on the gear.”
Hirabayashi didn’t have much time to learn the position. On February 20, 2016 — the Bruins second game of the season and in just his second career collegiate game — Hirabayashi started behind the dish against the University of North Carolina.
“It was cool and it was a great experience. I learned a lot,” Hirabayashi said with a chuckle. “I got more comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Hirabayashi went on to make 16 of his 18 starts as a freshman at catcher for the Bruins, and was listed as a catcher on the UCLA roster. He struggled at the plate, managing just seven hits in 66 at-bats for a .106 average.
But, Hirabayashi started to find his swing in La Crosse last summer, but suffered a broken hand on a swing during an at-bat in St. Cloud on July 10, 2016, cutting his season short. He hit .250 in 24 games.
“I hit a single and this is pretty funny, I squared the ball up and it was the hardest ball I hit all summer,” Hirabayashi said. “And I broke my hand on it. Which is weird because typically it’s on mishit balls, swing-and-misses and stuff like that, so it was kind of odd.”
That was the end to a frustrating few months for Hirabayashi. He went through rehab for the broken hand but made up in his mind he was going to come back stronger than before. He saw his teammates and his opponents and he realized he simply had to get bigger.
“I really took that to heart seeing those other guys and what Division I baseball looks like and just make it part of my game,” Hirabayashi said. “Just trying to get bigger, stronger, faster, just improving in any way I can.”
The added strength has been the noticeable change since he arrived for a second summer with the Loggers.
“We’ve talked about it, his physical strength that’s really the basis of it all,” Logger manager Brian Lewis said. “He’s just physically stronger, so all of the tools that he had have just gotten better.”
His sophomore season at UCLA was better. The Bruins switched him back to the infield, where Hirabayashi made 14 starts, but the numbers still weren’t where he wanted them to be. In 37 games, Hirabayashi hit just .218.
But, so far this summer, Hirabayashi has seemingly found himself at the plate. He started the season on a seven-game hit streak and hit safely in nine of his first 10 games. Entering Tuesday’s game, Hirabayashi was hitting .257 and has hit safely in his past three games. Back to playing the infield, Hirabayashi admitted that he was feeling much more comfortable this summer.
“I was definitely more confident coming in this year,” Hirabayashi said. “Playing infield, which I have been doing my whole life. So confidence was huge this year.”
Confidence will continue to be big, as this appears to be a make-or-break summer for the sophomore.
“When we talked to him before he got here, he didn’t care what position he wanted to play, he just wanted to be in there everyday,” Lewis said. “We told him we will put you in there everyday as long as you are doing the job. He’s more than done the job so far. But this summer is a big summer for him and his development for UCLA.”
Hirabayashi is enjoying another summer here in La Crosse, something he was looking forward to. However, he probably wasn’t even the most excited in his family. Hirabayashi’s mother and grandmother fell in love with the area when they came to see Hirabayashi play last summer.
“They love it,” Hirabayashi said. “They had such a great time. We had breakfast at Fayze’s, we love it here. My mom calls me and tells me she’s excited to come back every day.”
His mom and grandma are going to try to make another trip to La Crosse in the coming weeks, but for now Hirabayashi is just enjoying the fact that he gets to play infield everyday again while getting the chance to improve his game.
“I feel very confident in the infield, so I’m just trying to continue to hammer that in defensively, I’m trying to get better at moving around,” Hirabayashi said. “Just trying to get comfortable at every position and then I think the biggest thing for me is just to get at-bats.”