Saturday couldn't have gotten much better for Trevor Hildenberger. The former , California closer not only celebrated his mother's birthday at a family barbecue, but that barbecue was interrupted – albeit briefly – by a call from the Minnesota Twins, who picked up the side-arming righty in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft with the 650th overall.
"I didn't know until the scout called me and let me know that they had taken me," Hildenberger said. "She was pretty happy."
Things got even better for Hildenberger eight rounds later, when he found out that fellow Bears hurler Michael Theofanopoulos was also picked up by the Twins, with the 890th overall pick in the 30th round.
"You know, actually, a few of us had talked about how awesome it would be if we got taken by the same team, and then we could be teammates and go through the system together, so that's pretty awesome," said Hildenberger. "I was pumped when I saw that they also picked up Theo. I'm excited to go out wherever we're going."
The pair become the second set of Cal players taken by the same team over the past four years, following Marcus Semien and Erik Johnson, who were both taken by the Chicago White Sox in the 2011 draft, and made their big league debuts together last season against the New York Yankees.
Semien and Johnson were two of the key members of the 2011 College World Series team, as was Theofanopoulos, but Hildenberger didn't pitch a single inning that year. He wasn't at all torqued that he didn't get to play a part on that squad. As he said, "We were stacked that year." Instead, he used what happened that season as fuel for the rest of his career.
"I wasn't really good enough to pitch, so I didn't pitch," Hildenberger said. "I watched the College World Series from my couch, and it was pretty motivating. When you see a team having so much success, and you see your teammates having the time of their lives, and you watch them back at home from the couch, it motivated me: Next time we have success, I want to be a big part of it. We weren't too far away this year. Just a couple games. Too bad we didn't get a shot, but we'll win next year. We've got a good core group of guys, and I'm really excited for them next year. We were two or three games away from being a three-seed in a regional, and who knows what happens after that."
That career culminated in a record-tying season in 2014, as Hildenberger matched a single-season program-best with 10 saves.
"He changed his delivery, has really become a competitive winner on the mound for us, a guy that we depend on," said pitching coach Mike Neu.
Before his redshirt junior season, Hildenberger had made just 11 appearances in three years. With pitching depth at a premium thanks to the recruiting ramifications of cutting the baseball program in September of 2010, Hildenberger was pressed into service as a long reliever, starter and occasional closer in 2013, going 5-4 with a 5.31 ERA in 26 appearances, striking out 47 hitters in 57.2 innings of work.
"It's been about two years and a month," said Hildenberger, of the change that wound up making him into a professional ballplayer: Dropping down to the side. "I did it just at the beginning of the summer after my third year (redshirt sophomore season). "It helped me incredibly. In my first three years, I pitched 12 total innings, and then I went off to summer ball, changed my arm slot, and it totally reformed my approach to pitching. I became a right-handed specialist, and got a lot of sink on my fastball, learned a new slider and learned a new change up from the new arm slot. I was effective, and I got outs. When I got back to Cal, it helped me a lot. I got a significant amount of innings last year, and I built on that. I came back this year, and was even better."
That small change Hildenberger made before his junior campaign wound up making history, as the San Jose (Calif.) Archbishop Mitty product tied a school single-season record with 10 saves, going 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 48 strikeouts to just 11 walks in 47.2 innings, winning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 Honors, and being named Honorable Mention Pac-12 All-Academic.
"It's exciting for me to see his development, and to see what he's become," Neu said. "He's put in the work, the time and the effort. That's what's fun about coaching, is to see those guys."
Much like another Neu pupil, Joey Donofrio, Hildenberger was little-used through the majority of his career at Cal, until the past two seasons. Donofrio had 10 career appearances through his junior season in 2011, before he emerged as a dominant reliever in 2012 – his first year under Neu. Like Hildenberger, Donofrio added depth and sharpness to his slider, resulting in a 6-1 record with a 1.88 ERA and two saves in 25 appearances, earning him a 31st-round selection by the St. Louis Cardinals in June of 2012.
"I definitely thought about that, at the time," Hildenberger said of the similarities between himself and Donofrio. "Joey was one of my best friends while he was here, and he still is. He's a good buddy that I talk to pretty often. I knew that he hadn't pitched much until he was a fifth-year senior, developed a new slider, kept getting better and never stopped working. He blossomed into an awesome pitcher in his fifth year, and was absolutely dominant. When I came back for my fifth year, I thought, ‘Fifth-years can be successful. They're here for a reason. They can still contribute, no matter how old you are. It's never too late.' Joey was a big role model for me, and I recognized the similarities between us the whole time."
As a fifth-year senior, Hildenberger continued to develop his talent from down below, mastering a devastating change up-slider mix to work off of his low-90s fastball. Hildenberger, appropriately enough, earned his 10th save in his final collegiate game, tossing 3.0 innings and striking out three on May 24 against Oregon, securing a series win for the Bears against the No. 15 Ducks.
He also helped ensure a series win over then-playoff-bound USC on May 10, fanning six Trojans in 3.0 innings. Hildenberger's signature series, though, came in his last set against rival – and, as it turns out, NCAA Super Regional-bound -- Stanford.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righty earned a win and a save during the three-game series against the Cardinal April 26-29, earning one win and one save as Cal took two of three at Sunken Diamond.
DRAFT: Hildenberger Picked Up
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