Standing at a diminutive 5-foot-8, Carter Yagi does not always match up in a sport that typically rewards height. But so far, the Peninsula Oilers infielder has proven that it takes more than size to be successful.
The second and third baseman has had to fill in as a shortstop for the first two weeks of the Oilers season while the regulars in that position arrive from college. Mylz Jones and Alex Rubanowitz each will take over shortstop duties for the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the exhibition games that the Oilers have played against the San Francisco Seals, Lake Erie (Michigan) Monarchs and Oceanside (San Diego) Waves in the month of June have played right into Yagi’s hands, sometimes quite literally.
“When you have a little bit of athleticism, you gotta make up for it on the ground,” Yagi said before Friday’s game with the Waves. “I just wanted to outwork everyone, I was very undertalented, very undersized.”
Yagi — who lives with host parents Dan and Kathy Gensel of Soldotna — is a computer science major at Kansas State University, where he batted .261 this year as a junior, but had only four strikeouts in 115 at-bats.
It’s statistics like that have given Oilers coach Kyle Richardson an understanding of why the Wildcats wanted Yagi on their squad.
“He knows what his physical limitations are, and that’s one of the hardest things to get over,” Richardson said. “You gotta realize that you’re not going to be a Mark McGwire and do the things that they show on the highlight reel. But he already has gotten that through his head.”
For those in the crowd at recent games at Coral Seymour Memorial Park, it isn’t hard to see that Yagi has a long history with the sport of baseball.
“We’re a big baseball family,” Yagi said. “My grandfather coached American Legion for 30 plus years. My dad passed it down to me.”
Yagi is of Japanese heritage, but has never visited Japan. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, his roots go deep and a nostalgic pull of the game has helped to ingrain a work ethic that has helped him in the sport.
“My brother has had a big impact on my life, he’s been there the whole way,” Yagi said. “He’s really taught me the ropes. Him and I would just go out to the backyard and play whiffle-ball games.”
Starting at age 6, Yagi showed a knack for baseball, playing on his local 9-year-old All-Star team at age 6. As a multisport athlete in football and basketball as well, Yagi said the “Great American Pastime” was his true passion.
“My (high school) coach, John Hoover, brought me aside one day and told me, listen, you can be great one day,” he said. “But you need to start focusing on that, like 24/7.
“I wasn’t very strong, going into high school I was 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, so I wasn’t a big guy.”
As a second baseman in high school, Yagi moved to shortstop his senior year, a position he also played for the two following years at the College of Southern Idaho.
This season, Kansas State finished 25-30 overall (5-19 in the Big 12 Conference) this year, a bit of a down year, but the 21-year-old was a part of 14 double plays, and ranked fifth in runs scored for the Wildcats with 24.
When coach Brad Hill was organizing summer leagues for his players, Yagi’s options remained wide open.
“I was told I was gonna play in three different summer leagues before I got here, so I really was all over the place,” Yagi said. “I wanted to play in the Cape Cod League, but this was the next one after the Cape. It’s pretty cool to come play baseball in Alaska, in the summer, and it’s been a great experience here.
“There’s a real fellowship with the teammates. Those guys, without them, I wouldn’t be here. Just a great group of guys.”
The camaraderie has put Yagi in a comfortable position, he said, and when a guy is feeling comfortable, it can lead to some big plays. In Thursday’s game against the Waves, Yagi was given a walk in his second at-bat. When Mylz Jones followed that up with a ground-out, it left Yagi in a tough situation trying to beat out the fielder between first and second base.
Being caught in a rundown is a tricky situation, but Yagi managed to impressively escape the outstretched hand of the San Diego fielder and was called safe at first base.
“Every player, in my opinion, should have that drive to be great,” Yagi said. “A lot of it’s just learning from previous coaches and watching previous players do it. The play last night was just a baseball play. It was a chopper to second base, you can’t run into an out, you got to stay and let a couple guys score.”
From there, he then stole second, before scoring a run on a third baseman error. It is plays like that that explain coach Richardson’s reasoning for putting him out there.
“I’ve noticed a guy that understands who he is as a player,” Richardson said. “He knows he’s not a big home run guy, and his biggest asset is his versatility and his speed. He’s a guy that can play anywhere on the field, he can hit anywhere in the lineup, and he knows what he needs to do to help the team.”
Yagi admitted that he had a few games against the Seals in which he struggled at the plate. Unnecessary hard hitting and pressing was the cause of his struggles, but Oilers assistant coach Ray McIntire pulled him aside to give him advice and confidence.
“That was big for me,” Yagi said. After that advice, Yagi had a hit against the Monarchs on June 14, then followed it up with two hits against the Waves last Wednesday and a double and three runs against the Waves Thursday.
Richardson mentioned that the improvement and his openness to learning have been instrumental to the Oilers’ current nine-game unbeaten streak, and said Yagi’s knack for keeping away from errors has been a tremendous help.
“It’s his work ethic that’s gotten him back into it,” Richardson added. “He just keeps grinding.”