Preparing for a senior season as a starting pitcher for the University of Washington wouldn’t have been Jack Enger’s first choice a year ago.
In a normal world, the right-handed starter and former walk-on likely would have been a professional pitcher for months by now.
But nothing has been normal since the coronavirus pandemic hit. The college baseball season ended abruptly in March and the major league draft in June was reduced from 40 rounds to five. Enger, who was not taken during those five rounds, was “crushed” in the immediate aftermath.
But with time comes perspective.
“I am grateful for where I am,” Enger said. “I am just excited to be back, and I think everything happens for a reason. It’s a blessing in disguise to be back here, in my opinion. I’m more mature, and I can build off last season. Being able to continue to work with (pitching coach Elliott) Cribby and coach (Lindsay) Meggs and to get more innings under my belt before I head off into the professional world will help.”
The Pac-12 baseball schedules are not out yet, but the Huskies are tentatively scheduled to open the season Feb. 19 at Santa Clara. The team finished fall workouts at Thanksgiving, and will return Jan. 4 for a week of quarantine before getting back on the field.
That is great news for Enger, who was off to a terrific start last season, with a 2-1 record and a 1.88 ERA over 24 innings. Opponents were batting .141 against him. He was slated to start the opener of a three-game series at USC on March 13.
The team was at the airport to make the trip when the season was canceled.
“It definitely felt like I was going in the right direction and I was going to have a standout, breakout type of year,” Enger said. “Everything I had been working on with Cribby and coach Meggs was all sort of coming together.”
Enger been going in the right direction for a few years, making the unlikely leap from walk-on to staff ace. Huge increases in velocity, and a lot of hard work, are a big part of it.
As a junior at Bellevue High School, his fastball topped out at 82 mph. He now can reach 95, and also has an outstanding slider. Enger credits hitting the weight room and focusing on just baseball — he was Bellevue’s starting quarterback as a senior — for the improvement.
“I didn’t lift in high school as much I needed to, looking back on it,” said Enger, 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds. “I knew I could (make big gains in velocity) with the body I have, but it was a lot of hard work.”
UW didn’t offer Enger a scholarship, but said he could be a preferred walk-on. That was enough for Enger, who is following a long family tradition of going to UW. Father Kyle rowed for the Huskies and grandfather Joe played football for UW.
“If I went anywhere else, I think I would have been cut out of the will,” Enger said.
Said Meggs: “Jack was unique in that he played football, and he was the quarterback at Bellevue High School and that entailed a lot of summer stuff football-wise. So he was never someone in high school who spent that year-round time on the mound, and we saw what he was — a diamond in the rough. We had a feeling once he got over here and did nothing other than this, he was going to find that second gear. He has done all of that and more.”
Enger pitched in two games in relief as a freshman when the Huskies made it to the College World Series for the first time, then in 28 games (27 in relief) as a sophomore when he had an ERA of 3.20. He seemed headed for a huge season as a starter last year and then the pandemic hit.
In addition to the fastball that can hit 95 mph, Meggs said Enger’s slider is “a big-league pitch, a major league wipeout slider, and he can really finish people with that pitch.” Enger also throws a change-up and his coach said he can throw all three for strikes.
The Huskies were second in the Pac-12 in wins (behind Oregon State) from 2014 to 2018, culminating with the World Series berth. The team went through a rebuilding year in 2019, but 2020 was looking promising until the halt.
UW lost starter Stevie Emanuels, who turned pro after he was taken by the Oakland A’s in the fifth round, and reliever Leo Nierenberg, but most of the team is back.
“I like that we’re an older team,” Meggs said. “The teams that are successful in our conference are typically older up the middle, and on the mound. We return key guys in both of those areas.”
In addition to Enger, starter Logan Gerling is also back for the Huskies, and they have added Washington State transfer Tyson Guerrero, who started 24 games for the Cougars in 2019.
“He’s as talented as anyone we’ve had in a long time,” Meggs said of Guerrero, who was on Lower Columbia Community College’s roster last year. “He’s left-handed, has a 92-95 (mph fastball), an explosive slider, and he’s older and he’s been through some of those wars.”
So has Enger, who had confidence he could make his mark at UW “because I know I am a hard worker, gritty, and all that stuff that comes along with being successful and being a good teammate.”
Enger, honorable mention on the All-Pac 12 academic team as a sophomore, might have had a different path in mind last January, but he’s happy where he is. He said he is on track to graduate with a degree in sociology in the spring or summer, following a season that the team is very much looking forward to after a long absence.
“I think it’s going to be a really emotional day for all of our guys for all the obvious reasons,” Meggs said of the first game.