Selected in the 24th round of the MLB draft, Hillsboro's Zachary Esquerra is showing great potential

Zach Esquerra just keeps rising to the occasion.

Esquerra, the Hillsboro Hops’ right fielder, 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 cache of being an early-round draft HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops outfielder Zachary Esquerra, a 24th-round draft selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Division II California Baptist, is one of the breakout stars of the summer, leading the Hops with a .361 batting average, three home runs, 10 extra-base hits and 15 RBIs.

Just a couple of months ago, Esquerra finished up his senior season at California Baptist University, an NCAA Division II institution located in Riverside, Calif., which is situated 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,” said Esquerra, who earned his degree in criminal justice. “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 Monday, Esquerra had appeared in all but one of the Hops’ first 18 games. Excluding Josh Parr, who is batting .500 but has missed the past 14 games, Esquerra led the Hops with a .361 batting average, as well as in hits (22), doubles (6), home runs (3), RBIs (15) and runs (tie, 9). He ranked second in the Northwest League in batting average — Salem-Keizer’s Tyler Hollick carried a .371 average into Tuesday’s contests — as well as second in hits, 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 noted.

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 this spring, as well as to a second consecutive PacWest championship. 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-foot-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, 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 said he underwent a similar evolution in his prep days at La Habra High School in California, going from about .280 as a sophomore to about .360 and 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,” said Patrick Smith, a second-year pitcher for the Hops and also a former teammate of Esquerra’s 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 mindset, and he’s just crushing the ball right now.”

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.

One of his uncles, Alex Esquerra, is a baseball coach for Horizon Christian in Tualatin. A cousin lives in Everett, Wash., which is home to the AquaSox, and yet another cousin goes to the University of Oregon (the 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,” noted Esquerra, who is currently staying with a host family but plans to move in with his uncle’s family later this month.

Though Esquerra is pretty comfortable already in his new surroundings, the scary thing is that with a few more adjustments, he could be even better. He did have 21 strikeouts through Monday, but he is facing a higher level of pitching. The pitchers he now faces, Esquerra noted, throw with much more velocity that those he faced in college.

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

“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” Smith said. “In college, we fed off each other. He just works hard. 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. I got to see where he struggled at college and now reap the benefits of all his hard work.”

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