Yankees, Japanese Americans square off against A’s

New Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa. . photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Coliseum always seems to buzz with extra energy when the New York Yankees come to town. Their visit to Oakland to play the Athletics for a four-game set in late August was no exception, as attendance during the series was more than double the Oakland Coliseum’s average attendance. New York and Oakland split the series, 2-2.

New York came to the Bay Area in first place in the American League East led by outfielder and Most Valuable Player candidate Aaron Judge and two players of Japanese American descent, catcher Kyle Higashioka and shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

The Yankees took the first two games of the series, playing up to the Goliath persona of their roster and post-season expectations.

Kiner-Falefa provided a key spark in the series opener when he lined a single up the middle with the bases loaded in the second inning. The floodgates opened from there as the Yankees went on to pound the A’s 13-4.

“Izzy [Kiner-Falefa] might have had the most key at-bats in the game, to kind of get that first big inning going with a really tough at-bat,” New York manager Aaron Boone said.

Kiner-Falefa had grinded a full-count against Oakland starting pitcher James Kaprielian before delivering his go-ahead hit. The Yankee shortstop drove in two runs to open the scoring and the Yankees never looked back.

The next game was dominated by Yankees pitcher and rotation ace Gerrit Cole and MVP candidate Judge. Cole limited the A’s to just one run and three hits in 7.1 innings and Judge slugged a three-run homer for his 49th home run of the season. The Yankees edged the A’s 3-2, but lost starting catcher Jose Trevino to injury when he was hit by an errant pitch from A’s relief pitcher Jared Koenig in the eighth inning. Trevino’s injury forced Higashioka behind the plate in the ninth inning to close out the game.

The Yankees faltered in the back half of the series, scratching out only two runs and five hits in the final two games against Oakland, losing both games.

Kiner-Falefa and Higashioka combined for three hits, three RBI and two runs scored in the series.

Kiner-Falefa, originally from Honolulu, has been a mainstay as the Yankees starting shortstop since the start of the season. He was acquired in a trade from the Minnesota Twins in March as part of a package that included third baseman Josh Donaldson and minor league catcher Ben Rortvedt.

Kiner-Falefa has played up to his reputation as a stout defender, providing steady defense up the middle for a Yankees team that is among the favorites to win the World Series this year. Through Aug. 29, Kiner-Falefa ranked sixth in the American League in defensive runs saved for shortstops who have played a minimum of 900 innings. In the pandemic shortened 2020 season, he won a Gold Glove award as a third baseman with the Texas Rangers, recognizing the top defensive player at each position.

Kiner-Falefa made his Major League debut in 2018 as a utility player, logging substantial time at four different positions in his first four seasons. His defensive versatility has him slated as the Yankees emergency catcher behind All Star Jose Trevino and Higashioka.

Kiner-Falefa’s career has come full circle as he grew up a Yankees fan, playing the same position for the same team as his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter. Jeter is a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer who played 20 seasons for the Yankees before retiring in 2014.

Higashioka, originally from Huntington Beach, Calif., was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2008. He had originally committed to play college baseball at the University of

California at Berkeley, but chose to go pro after the Yankees drafted him in the seventh round.

Higashioka made his Major League debut in the middle of the 2018 season following an injury to then-Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. Higashioka has been New York’s regular backup catcher since 2020, providing a steady presence behind the plate while occasionally showing some pop in limited at-bats. He hit 10 home runs in only 193 at-bats last season.

Through Aug. 29, Kiner-Falefa is hitting .264 on the season with one home run and 38 RBI while stealing 15 bases. Higashioka is hitting .195 but with seven home runs and 21 RBI in limited playing time as the backup catcher.

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