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By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Kevin Pillar is the best Jewish player you’ve never heard of.

In college he set an NCAA Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak. Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, he led his rookie league with a .347 batting average and in one game went 6-for-6 with a 9th-inning grand slam. In 2012 he hit a combined .323 with six HRs, 91 RBIs, and 51 stolen bases for two teams, good enough to be named MVP of the Midwest League. Later that year he starred in the invitation-only Arizona Fall League, where he hit a fifth-best .371 and stole 8 bases in just 62 at-bats.

Baseball America’s 2013 Prospect Handbook rates Pillar the Blue Jays’ No. 21 prospect. It says his “quickness and savvy also serve him well in the outfield, where he can play all three positions.”

Somehow, Pillar flew beneath our radar. That is, until a former high-school teammate wrote to say he was Jewish.

The 24-year-old Pillar confirmed it in a recent interview. Though his father is Christian and their southern California home was not “super religious,” Pillar and older brother Michael both were Bar Mitzvah’d, inspired in large part by love and respect for their maternal grandparents.

Jewish baseball fans may not have known Pillar, but Pillar knows plenty of Jewish ballplayers. He told Jewish Baseball News he played little-league ball with Seattle Mariners prospect Jack Marder, high-school ball with Los Angeles Angels prospect Casey Haerther, minor-league rookie ball with fellow Blue Jays prospect Ian Kadish, and sees San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker during offseason workouts.

Pillar was careful to avoid burning-out on baseball early on. While some kids focused all their athletic energies on one sport, he and his parents decided it would be healthier to mix things up. Thus Pilllar excelled in football, basketball, and baseball at his Catholic high school, where monthly Mass was mandatory but religious- studies electives included Hebrew and Judaism.

Speed was the common thread. Pillar played point guard on the basketball team, outfield on the baseball team, and running back, receiver, outside linebacker, and kick- and punt-returner on the football team. “I had a good basketball I.Q.,” he said.

Two factors persuaded Pillar to focus on baseball at college. One was his modest size; he finished high school 6-feet-tall and weighing 180 pounds. The other was baseball’s vexing failure rate, where even the finest players rarely hit successfully more than 30 percent of the time. “The fact that you fail more than you succeed was more of a challenge,” he said. Pillar enrolled at Cal State — Dominguez Hills, where he majored in business and set the Division II hitting-streak record.

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Major-league scouts were not particularly wowed. By the time the Blue Jays selected Pillar in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft, 978 other amateurs already had been picked. Playing the way he has his first two years in the minors undoubtedly has been the best revenge. Baseball America projects him as “at least a fourth outfielder in the big leagues.”

Not that Pillar is content. Last year he compensated for a frustrating lack of extra-base hits by following his singles with stolen bases (his 51 ranked 2nd among Blue Jays farmhands). During the offseason, he decided that to do better in 2013 — he’ll most likely open with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (AA) — he’d need not only to “get bigger, faster and stronger” but also change the mechanics of his swing, and learn to swing more freely.

“I’ve always been a contact hitter,”he said. “It’s just about being a little more aggressive, not that passive at the plate.”

The 2013 season already is off to a good start. Though currently participating in Toronto’s minor-league spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla., Pillar has made his way into four big-league games to date. The highlight so far? Coming off the bench to replace Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista in right field and then stroking a 7th-inning single off Baltimore Orioles reliever Daniel McCutchen.

Pillar shared only one regret in his recent interview: that news of Team Israel’s talent search for last year’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers reached him too late. “I wish that I’d known about it,” he said.

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