It was a long journey to Kyle Higashioka’s first big-league hit. But it was well worth the wait.
It took the catcher 10 years to make it to the bigs, after being selected by the New York Yankees in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB draft. But despite making his debut on April 10 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Higashioka didn’t get to bat in the game. In fact, he played in nine games for the Yankees in 2017 and never logged a hit.
Fast forward to Sunday night in the Bronx against the Boston Red Sox.
It was Higashioka’s third game with the Yankees this season. He was still hitless.
When the longtime Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders catcher walked up to the plate in the fourth inning against David Price, sporting a franchise record 0-for-22 hitless streak to start his big-league career, the Yankees were already leading 6-0 and three of his teammates had home runs.
Higashioka knew he was going to get something to hit, and he just made the most of it. A 401-foot home run to the second deck in left field.
“I was trying to play it cool and act like I’ve done it before even though everyone knows I haven’t,” Higashioka said of his home run trot. “But it’s so much more meaningful to know that it contributed to a big win and against the Red Sox as well.
“I knew it was gone. It was a great feeling”
The Yankees could have given up on Higashioka.
He’s struggled early in his career. After his first two seasons as a pro — 2008 in rookie ball and 2009 with Low-A Staten Island — Higashioka struggled to hit above .250. After doing it his first two seasons, he wasn’t able to secure the feat again until 2015.
Then there were the injuries. Tommy John surgery and a broken thumb caused him to miss much of his 2013 and 2014 campaigns. There was a back injury that sidelined him much of last season, too.
The Yankees didn’t have to offer him a minor league deal in the 2015 offseason, but they did. Three and a half years later, Higashioka paid them back.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster ride for me, ” Higashioka said. “Obviously early in my career I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked so that really slowed me down along with the injuries, but luckily the Yankees stuck with me long enough to give me this incredible opportunity.”
“It definitely was worth the wait.”
Back in Buffalo, the RailRiders had just gotten to the team hotel and were out and about downtown when Higashioka stepped up to the plate for his second at-bat of the night. Wherever they were, the RailRiders stopped what they were doing to watch their former teammate take on Price.
Then the celebration ensued.
“We were walking over to the Mariott to grab a bite to eat and saw that he was up,” RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell said of what his group was doing when Higashioka hit his home run. “We were keeping tabs on him, seeing what was going on. Yeah, when he hit it, we were all like cheering and everything walking along. We were so happy for him.
“He’s a great kid. He works really hard. He’s come a long way through injuries and so forth, so this is just — like going to the big leagues — this is icing on the cake, really. To get his first hit, and it being a homer. It couldn’t have been any better for him.”
Now that Higashioka has the monkey off of his back, he can get down to business and continue help the Yankees win.
He was in the starting lineup for the second straight night Monday against the Atlanta Braves. He was aiming for hit No. 2 and helping Jonathan Loaisiga to his third big-league win.
“I feel more relaxed at the plate and now hopefully the hits will start flowing,” Higashioka said.
And yes, Higashioka got the ball back, too.
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle