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Isotopes' Sam Hilliard appreciative of journey that has him on brink of home run record

Apr. 24—Don't tell Sam Hilliard what he's on the brink of doing isn't special.

Sure, the 30-year-old in his 10th professional season would have preferred Wednesday's conversation with reporters be taking place in a big league clubhouse and that their questions focus on one of his accomplishments in the Majors, but that doesn't mean he isn't fully appreciative and grateful for what he's done in 265 games in an Albuquerque Isotopes jersey over parts of three seasons.

Hilliard, who went 2-for-5 in Wednesday night's 11-9 loss to the visiting Oklahoma City Baseball Club, is sitting on 65 home runs with the Isotopes, one away from the franchise record of 66 by Jordan Patterson.

A minor league home run record may not be a badge of honor for everyone, just don't count Hilliard among them.

"It's certainly an honor for me. Having a record of any kind is a really cool accomplishment and I just feel super blessed that I've been able to have that type of success here," said Hilliard, who has played parts of five seasons in the Majors with both the Colorado Rockies and Atlanta Braves.

"Obviously, as a competitor, I want to be setting records in the big leagues. But you know, I love playing here. ... So (I'm) just trying not to think about it too much and it's gonna be a really cool deal if I end up tying and breaking this thing."

Patterson, who played for the Isotopes in 2016-18, is now pursuing a law degree back home in Alabama. He and Hilliard knew each other from being in the Rockies organization together, though were never teammates.

"It's going to be an honor if I can tie or eventually break his record," Hilliard said.

Patterson's 66 career homers with the Isotopes came in 366 games. Hilliard's 65 have come through 235 games, giving him the best home run-per game rate of any of the sluggers on the Isotopes Top 5 home run list:

1. Jordan Patterson 66 (366 games)

* 2. Sam Hilliard 65 (235 games)

3. Jason Wood 60 (597 games)

4. Jerry Sands 55 (213 games)

5. Joe Dillon 54 (206 games)

* Active on Isotopes roster.

Hilliard spent the entire 2023 season with the Atlanta Braves. He found himself back with the Albuquerque Isotopes this season after the Colorado Rockies acquired him off waivers in February and designated him for assignment to Triple-A Albuquerque just last month.

Arguably the two best seasons of Hilliard's professional career were in 2019 and 2020 in Albuquerque — two seasons in which Hilliard earned his way into the Majors.

"Just thinking about my time here in Albuquerque, I've been up and down from the big leagues a couple times with the Rockies and I've spent some of my lowest of lows as a baseball player, as a hitter here," Hilliard said. "Just struggling in the big leagues, not getting to play much and then coming down here and getting everyday at bats and just figuring it out. ...

"On the flip side, I've been as hot as I've ever been at this place. So this place is sacred to me. A lot of memories, good and bad, and I've loved it."

Albuquerque was also the pin on the map during very personal part of Hilliard's life.

As he was flourishing in the minors, and especially those seasons in Albuquerque, his father, Jim, was diagnosed with ALS in 2018. It never stopped the family from supporting Sam and his other siblings in their careers.

"He hits it a mile," Jim Hilliard told the Journal in an interview in June 2019 on the concourse of Isotopes Park, moments after his then 25-year-old son had hit his 17th home run in an Isotopes jersey. "It's just that translating that batting practice power to a game has been a process. Hopefully he holds on to it.

"It seems he's figured it out."

Jim Hilliard, who played linebacker at the University of Texas and was an orthopedic surgeon, died from the disease in 2021, though not before seeing his son play in the Majors.

In fact, on Opening Day 2020 when COVID prevented fans from being allowed in stadiums, the Texas Rangers made an exception for the Hilliards, who are from Mansfield, Texas, just 15 miles away.

Tamara Hilliard has launched the "Team Hilliard Foundation" to raise awareness and funds for research of ALS — a fight they continue today. they also were among the advocates that got MLB to honor June 2 as Lou Gehrig Day around the majors to help raise awareness of the disease.

Hilliard said his wife and his family remain a huge part of his success on and off the field.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them," Hilliard said of his family, his wife and all the coaches and teammates his had through the years. "So to be able to set any kind of record is special, and I know it's not a feat of my own, you know? A whole bunch of different people who care about me and I care about them a lot have helped me."

WALKER BUEHLER: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler got the injury rehab assignment start for the OKC Baseball Club on Wednesday, but it wasn't all that pretty.

The former All Star hasn't pitched in the big leagues in two years after Tommy John surgery.

Wednesday, he pitched 4.0 innings, allowing five runs (three earned) off seven hits, a pair of walks and he allowed two home runs.

The 3-hour, 32-minute game included 27 hits, 17 walks and 22 strikeouts and the Isotopes have lost the first two of the six-game series, which continues Thursday with a day-game that starts at 11:05 a.m.