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Hitting a home run as a first hit in Major League Baseball may seem improbable to some, but not to former Shocker Sam Hilliard.
Hilliard, who played for Wichita State during the 2015 season, made headlines on Tuesday when he made his MLB debut starting in center field for the Colorado Rockies. He smashed a 455-foot home run to right-center field for his first major-league hit in the bottom of the eighth inning of a 10-6 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Afterward, the Rockies’ television analyst asked if he ever imagined his first MLB hit would be a home run.
“Yeah,” Hillard responded. “Why not?”
Hilliard has a point: he hit 35 home runs and drove in 101 runs this season for the Rockies’ Triple-A team in Albuquerque. The 25-year-old right-handed slugger is rated as the No. 9 prospect for the Rockies, according to MLB Pipeline.
The home run on Tuesday was the emotional high for the Rockies in an otherwise ugly loss, as Hilliard’s family and close friends were seen wildly celebrating the two-run shot in the stands.
“I looked up for one second and I saw my two best friends from back home,” Hilliard, a Mansfield, Texas native, told Rockies.com. “They were getting after it.”
Hilliard, a 6-foot-5, 238-pound outfielder, had a pair of shaky moments defensively in the field earlier in the game, so his eighth-inning homer ended his debut on a positive note.
Rockies’ manager Bud Black has long been impressed by Hilliard.
“When a guy plays his first game, it’s special stuff. It truly is,” Black said. “All of the guys have been in his shoes as first-game big-leaguers. When a guy goes deep, it’s really cool. The guys were pumped for him.
“Sam is well liked. He plays the game the right way. He plays hard. He’s very respectful. He’s got a lot of great attributes as a guy and the guys appreciate that. When good things happen to good people, the guys feel good about it.”
Hilliard’s professional career took off after his lone season with the Shockers in 2015 following two seasons at junior colleges. Hilliard led the Shockers in hitting with a .335 batting average, adding eight home runs, 26 extra-base hits and 52 runs batted in.
He signed his first professional contract that summer after the Rockies drafted him in the 15th round. He has steadily progressed through the Rockies’ farm system the past five years, hitting 89 home runs over the course of 567 minor-league games.
Hilliard found out of his first big-league call-up on Monday in suspenseful fashion, as he was pulled in the fifth inning of Albuquerque’s game after popping up to end an 0-for-3 day.
“(The manager) pulled me over and said, ‘Hey, what did you think about your effort level on that pop out to left field?’ and I said, ‘It was good. I ran hard,’” Hilliard told RoxPile.com. “He said, “Well, I have to take you out.’ I got really upset. I thought I was getting pulled because of lack of effort and I was running hard.
“I was like, ‘What the heck?’ and he said, ‘It’s not because of your effort level.’”
Hilliard’s manager wouldn’t tell him about the promotion during the game, although Hilliard suspected that might be it.
“He called me into his office and he was telling me lessons about baseball and playing hard,” Hilliard said. “He said I’m going to want to remember that tomorrow when I’m in the box at Coors (Field). That’s how he dropped it on me.
“I don’t really remember what happened after that. I was overwhelmed and super excited.”