Sports

State College graduate Saige Jenco taking on professional baseball

State College graduate Saige Jenco was hitting .229 with 17 strikeouts in 96 at-bats for the Great Lake Loons going into Tuesday night.
State College graduate Saige Jenco was hitting .229 with 17 strikeouts in 96 at-bats for the Great Lake Loons going into Tuesday night. Courtesy of Great Lakes Loons

On June 11, Saige Jenco, surrounded by family, turned to his uncle.

I want to play for the Dodgers more than anything in the world, Jenco said at the time.

A mere 15 minutes later, he got the call.

Jenco was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 24th round.

“I didn’t have a feel for who was going to draft me,” the center fielder said. “But I knew who I wanted to play for.”

A 2012 State College graduate, Jenco was a three-sport athlete for the Little Lions before starring in baseball for Virginia Tech.

Now he’s playing for the Great Lakes Loons, a Low Class-A team in the Midwest League based out of Midland, Mich.

And a little more than a month-and-a-half into his professional baseball career, Jenco is settling in nicely.

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Baseball wasn’t Jenco’s first love. That distinction belonged to football.

First strapping on a helmet at age 5, Jenco always wanted to play collegiately.

“I was a football player growing up,” he said. “I didn’t take baseball serious until my junior year.”

For a kid raised in the shadow of Beaver Stadium with dreams of playing on Saturdays — and eventually Sundays — switching focus to baseball so late in his high school career was difficult.

But Jenco benefited from a strong support system of friends and family.

“I had great people in State College,” Jenco said. “They always told me, no matter what you’re doing around here, there are bigger and better things, and you just have to push yourself to get to the next level.

“And that’s what I did.”

Jenco said while his lifelong goal was to play professional sports, he was in a situation where he just wanted a college offer.

After a baseball camp in the summer of 2011, he got one from Virginia Tech.

That fall he accepted — and with the decision, he gave up football.

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In 2015, Jenco was expecting to go in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft.

He waited and waited and waited, and finally came off the board in the 27th round, drafted by the Boston Red Sox.

Just a few years after turning his attention to baseball, Jenco was drafted — kind of crazy to conceptualize.

But still, he wasn’t satisfied.

“Things played out the way they did,” Jenco said about his low draft position. “So I came back.”

Jenco redshirted in 2013 after hitting .430 as a senior at State College.

He broke into the Hokies’ lineup in 2014 as their leadoff hitter, hitting .323 with 20 stolen bases and a .449 on-base percentage.

As a redshirt sophomore, Jenco hit .333 with 13 doubles and 27 RBIs, earning a spot on the All-ACC Third-Team.

And when he returned after being drafted for his redshirt junior campaign, Jenco drew a career-high 41 walks, scored 34 runs and hit .302.

Just like the year before, Jenco entered the 2016 draft expecting to be selected in the first 10 rounds.

But it happened again.

He slipped down the draft board all the way to No. 731.

“It was nerve-wracking toward the end,” Jenco admitted. “It was pretty tough. ... Still, everything worked out.”

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Great Lakes Loons hitting coach Aaron Bates has observed Jenco every day since his arrival to minor league ball.

Bates, a former first baseman for the Red Sox, didn’t really critique Jenco or any newly-drafted players until they had been with the team for a while.

But there is something Bates noticed early, and complimented Jenco on more than one occasion.

“His speed is his best strength in terms of what he brings on a day-to-day basis,” Bates said. “Putting pressure on the defense, stealing bases, he’s a high-energy player. ... Defenses have to be on their guard.”

During Jenco’s brief minor league career, this has been the case.

The 22-year-old has played 36 minor league games — 25 for the Loons and 11 for the Ogden Raptors in the Pioneer League.

In those 36 games, Jenco has 13 stolen bases and has been caught stealing only once.

Jenco had a .390 average with the Raptors, but since being called up to the Loons he’s struggled a bit at the plate. He was hitting .229 with 17 strikeouts in 96 at-bats going into Tuesday night.

However, those wheels have been a blessing for Jenco.

Bates has seen minor leaguers who slump and don’t have anything to fall back on other than their bats.

“If a power guy struggles, he’s going to question what he’s bringing to the table,” the hitting coach said. “With speed, you don’t even necessarily have to hit a ball through the infield.”

“It should give him a bigger margin of error in terms of being productive.”

Jenco sees it that way, too.

His average isn’t great right now, but he’s confident in his ability — it served him well at State College and Virginia Tech, why not now?

Plus, this early in his career, Jenco isn’t freaking out if his swing isn’t MLB-ready. He’s not overly concerned with what’s in the far future.

Of course, Jenco wants to make it to the majors.

“If I’m not playing to get to the big leagues, then what am I playing for?” he said.

But he doesn’t have a date marked of when he needs to be in Double or Triple-A.

It’s a developmental process, one day at a time.

Sure, he might have been keyed in on football early on, and didn’t realize his baseball aspirations until later as a teenager.

But to Jenco, it’s the same game he’s been playing his whole life, the game he loved.

“You’re still playing to win and you’re playing with your friends,” he said. “You just have to perform day in and day out, so there’s a little bit more pressure.”

Jenco, though, loves that it all comes with the territory of being a professional baseball player.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s getting paid to play now.

“It’s a job,” Jenco said, almost surprised. “You can’t complain.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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