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Esquerra makes early impact in pro ball

Hops outfielder adjusts to new career with ease


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Zachary Esquerra, an outfielder from California Baptist, is leading the Hillsboro Hops in several offensive categories.Zach Esquerra just keeps rising to the occasion.

The Hillsboro Hops outfielder might seem an unlikely candidate to be one of the top hitters in the Northwest League this summer.

After all, Esquerra does not possess a big-school pedigree or the prestige of being an early-round draft pick.

A couple of months ago, Esquerra finished his senior season at California Baptist University, an NCAA Division II school in Riverside, Calif., just east of Los Angeles and Anaheim. In June, the 22-year-old was taken as the 720th pick (24th round) of the MLB draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who assigned him to the Hops, the organization’s short-season Class A affiliate.

“Once you’re here, where you came from doesn’t really count,” says Esquerra, who earned his degree in criminal justice and psychology. “So it’s fun here. We don’t have to worry about homework or school ... so you just come here, work hard, and I think once you get on the field, everyone’s equal. I’ve been fortunate to see my hard work pay off.”

And pay off even in his first weeks as a professional baseball player. Through Tuesday, Esquerra had appeared in all but one of the Hops’ first 19 games. Excluding Josh Parr, who was batting .500 but had missed the past 15 games, Esquerra was leading the Hops with a .348 batting average and was first on the team in hits (23), doubles (6), home runs (3) and RBIs (15) and second in runs (9).

He ranked second in the Northwest League in batting average — Salem-Keizer’s Tyler Hollick carried a .351 average into Wednesday’s contests — and was third in hits, tied for second in doubles and home runs, and third in RBIs.

“I don’t want to say that it surprised me, but, no, I’m blessed to have the start that I’ve had,” Esquerra says.

Given his track record, though, perhaps this early-season success should not seem surprising. Esquerra did come to the Hops after having received a litany of honors for his senior season with the Lancers. Among them, he was named the PacWest Player of the Year, NCBWA West Region Player of the Year and Rawlings/ABCA Division II National Player of the Year.

Esquerra led the Lancers to a 43-18 record and a second consecutive PacWest championship this spring. In 60 games, he posted a .388 batting average and produced 76 hits, 61 runs, 17 home runs, and 54 RBIs, all of which were team highs.

He worked to get to those numbers, though. At 6-4 and 210 pounds, Esquerra is strong and powerful. As a sophomore at Cal Baptist — where he played with his identical twin brother, Luke — he swung the bat like a power hitter, too, posting a .280 average with 51 hits and 60 strikeouts. As a junior, he improved that ratio to 50 hits and 51 strikeouts, and his batting average was .325. (Esquerra cut his strikeouts to 40 as a senior).

Esquerra underwent a similar evolution in his prep days at La Habra High in California. He went from hitting about .280 as a sophomore, he said, to about .360 with 10 home runs as a senior.

“He’s always been a power hitter and always hit balls in the gap. What I noticed right off the bat when he got up here with me was just his plate discipline,” says Patrick Smith, a second-year pitcher with the Hops and a former teammate at Cal Baptist. “He struggled at times in college with strikeouts and kind of having an eye for getting his pitch and stuff like that.

“In college, it was either a home run or a strikeout, it seemed like, but he was still driving in runs. And now it’s just like, you can’t keep him off the bases. ... He’s looking for his pitch, he’s keeping the right mind-set, and he’s just crushing the ball.”

Though coming to Oregon to play for the Hops meant leaving his native California, Esquerra seems to be making the adjustment well, and not just on the field. He has had plenty of support, as members of his family live up and down the West Coast.

An uncle, Alex Esquerra, is a baseball coach for Horizon Christian in Tualatin. A cousin lives in Everett, Wash., which is home to the Northwest League’s AquaSox, and yet another cousin goes to the University of Oregon (the NWL Emeralds are based in Eugene). And a brother attends college in Washington.

“It’s nice, because I came here, and I have such a huge support system here,” says Esquerra, who is staying with a host family but plans to move in with his uncle’s family later this month.

Though Esquerra is doing well already in his new surroundings, the scary thing is that with a few more adjustments, he could be even better. He had 24 strikeouts through Tuesday, but he is facing a higher level of pitching. The pitchers he now faces, Esquerra notes, throw with much more velocity than those he faced in college.

He should figure that out, though. After all, he’s done it before.

“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” Smith says. He goes about things the right way. It’s fun to see him on this team in pro ball with me now, because I can see how much he’s grown from college.”