After ending last season on the right side of a position controversy, Kyle Higashioka wants to do right in a potentially awkward situation. He expressed confidence that Gary Sanchez will do the same.
“I think we’re both professional about it. I don’t think we hold it against each other,” Higashioka, referring to himself and his fellow catcher Sanchez, told The Post Tuesday evening. “It’s just we know we need to always be playing at our best level or else there’s [a possibility] that we might not be playing too much.
“At the end of the day, we want to win the World Series. It doesn’t do any good if we were to be at each other’s throats or something.”
Higashioka Zoomed in from his Oregon home to conduct a virtual meet and greet with student-athletes from New York State districts with a significant population participating in the Free & Reduced Lunch program. The New York State Athletic Administrators organized the event.
The last time Higashioka had been seen by New York baseball fans, he had started five of the Yankees’ seven postseason games behind the plate, a by-product of his development — he became Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher in the latter half of the COVID-reduced 2020 season — as well as Sanchez’s plummet. He slashed a respectable .278/.316/.444 and played strong defense in the postseason.
“I was really nervous, because I had never played in the playoffs before,” Higashioka said. “I had minor league playoff experience, but it’s not even close to the intensity that the major league playoffs are. I was pretty nervous going into it.
“At least having the first game going against Cleveland, the fact that we kind of blew them out [12-3] in that game, that was really fun and it settled my nerves a little bit. It kind of allowed me to look and say, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”
He slashed .250./.250/.521 in the regular season, slamming four homers, including three in one game (Sept. 16 against the Blue Jays in The Bronx).
Said Higashioka: “I think it was definitely my best year to date, I thought I caught well. My hitting improved from previous years. I think I made some progress, but I think there’s still work to do and still a lot of room for improvement.”
And a lot of fluidity regarding how much he’ll play.
“I’m not really going into the season under any assumptions or false pretenses or anything,” Higashioka said. “I figure, every year, I’m going to have to battle for playing time. In my mind, I’m going out there, putting my best game out there and being as prepared as possible. And then if that warrants more playing time, that’ll be the case. And if not, that’ll be the case as well.”
This offseason, he said, he has focused on getting in “optimal baseball shape,” and he supports the idea of starting the season on time, as will now be the case barring government intervention: “I thought we did a good job last year of playing through it. I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be able to this year.”
He expressed excitement about working with new pitching teammates Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon and elation that the Yankees retained their best player DJ LeMahieu, with whom Higashioka spoke a couple of times during LeMahieu’s free agency. Asked whether he grew concerned that LeMahieu might not return to the Yankees, given that it took until mid-January for the two sides to sign off on a six-year, $90 million pact, Highasioka said, “I guess a little bit, since I wasn’t really prying, asking for inner details. But I knew he always wanted to come back. It was just a matter of them agreeing on something, which I’m glad they came to an agreement.”
During his meet and greet, the amicable Higashioka answered questions ranging from his favorite pitcher to catch (CC Sabathia) to his favorite classes in school (math and science) to a far more serious query about whether he has ever been subjected to racists comments on social media (he has).
“We didn’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with fans really at all last year,” Higashioka said. “I think I kind of have a soft spot for kids, especially ones who are growing up in lesser circumstances than what I had.”