In March, the University of Washington baseball team was in line at SeaTac Airport to check bags for a flight to Los Angeles. Junior pitcher Jack Enger milled about, joking with teammates while mentally preparing to pitch the next day.
It was opening weekend of Pac-12 Conference play. The Bellevue native was scheduled to take the mound for the first time on Friday night, the spot generally reserved for each staff’s ace. When asked if he was excited, he flatly responded, “It’s just another start.”
To him, it was. To followers of Enger’s career, it was anything but. It was the beginning of special things to come this spring.
It was akin to seeing an underdog thoroughbred, despite long odds, emerge from the Kentucky Derby’s final turn on top, ready to show the world his closing speed.
“We were just so happy for him,” said fellow UW pitcher Stevie Emanuels. “We all have confidence in that kid. He was finally getting that great opportunity.”
That the opponent was USC, college baseball’s most storied program, made it better.
The Trojans have won more baseball national championships than any other college baseball conference. Upon entering Dedeaux Field, opponents walk a gauntlet of banners featuring former stars – Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Bret Boone, Barry Zito, Mark Prior.
USC hopes it intimidates. For most competitors, however, it motivates. Enger was getting his shot on that stage. He was ready.
Instead, a cell phone rang in that line at SeaTac. The team was told to gather belongings and return to the bus. The weekend trip was called off, victim of the Covid-19 pandemic exploding across the globe.
“At first, I didn’t think it was real,” Enger said. “Immediate denial kicked in. No way this is getting taken away.”
Soon the entire season was canceled. Enger and his teammates would not take the field again.
A walk-on, Enger made two appearances as a freshman. As a sophomore reliever, the business major was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 academic performer.
Recently voted captain by teammates, this was to be Enger’s first spring in a starring role and as a legitimate pro prospect. Scouts projected him between the third and 10th round.
Alongside Emanuels, they may have been Pac-12’s best starting tandem.
The Huskies were 9-6 ahead of conference play. Enger was 2-1 with a 1.88 ERA: “I felt like I got off to a pretty good start.”
He was in conference’s top 10 in strikeouts, strikeouts looking, lowest batting average against and innings pitched. Twice he stopped two-game losing streaks.
While the second was statistically his best game, the first was an outing that defines Enger as a competitor.
Coming off a fall and winter where he had solidified his role, all signs pointed toward Enger making the first meaningful start on opening weekend. Instead, the pitching staff’s youth and inexperience made the coaches decide he was most needed in the bullpen.
For most pitchers, the letdown would be a blow.
“I was all for it,” he said. “But at the same time, I was frustrated. I felt like I had earned that role in the fall. But, it was for the team that weekend.”
He entered a Feb. 16 game against Loyola Marymount with no outs in the second inning after a walk, two-run homer and double tied the game.
“That was my time to shine,” he said. “No pressure. Just me going out there and taking control of the game and finishing it.”
Enger punched out his first hitter, ending the rally. He mowed down LMU hitters for six innings, allowing a single run with six strikeouts. The Huskies rallied late to win 4-3 to avert an opening-series sweep.
UW pitching coach Elliott Cribby said Enger’s outing “was a pivotal point to the start of the season. He knows he’s one of our best pitchers. We know he’s one of our best pitchers. He just sucks it up and gets it done. Awesome kid. We didn’t lose for two weeks after that.”
A 6-foot-4 right-hander with a fastball touching 95 mph, one might easily mistake him for an athlete who is given countless opportunities. Instead, he’s been overlooked.
In a letter to alumni this spring, Huskies head coach Lindsay Meggs highlighted Enger’s career transformation from an “unrecruited walk-on” to a “great pitcher and an outstanding leader on and off the field.”
As a junior at Bellevue High School, his size was intriguing, though his 82-mph fastball caused scouts to pass. After a solid senior year, his fastball in summer league jumped to 86-88 mph. Coupled with pinpoint control, he was dominant. Unfortunately, scouting perceptions were unmoved. However, he was offered the one opportunity he wanted: A chance to compete for a spot at the UW.
A fifth-generation Husky, Enger wanted to be a Dawg. His father, Kyle, rowed at UW. His grandfather, Joe Ryan, played football for Jim Owens in the 1960s.
Asked if he ever imagined himself as the Huskies’ Friday night starter and potential draft pick coming out of high school unrecruited, he was emphatic: “A hundred percent yeah. That’s what I always wanted, and worked for every day.
“I was growing well into a starter. I felt like I made a good transition from the bullpen.”
By the end of his freshman year, Enger’s fastball reached 90-92. Last spring, he hit the mid-90s, with command.
But the opportunity to prove himself in the conference season before he would have been eligible for the draft has been lost. Yet Enger laments more the team’s loss than missed individual experience.
“Emotionally, I’m pretty stable. It’s the way it is,” Enger said. “At first, it was honestly depressing. Thinking I might not be able to play with this group of guys again.”
On a personal level, this spring should have been the culmination of three years of hard work, propelling him to professional baseball, the next step in his dreams. Instead, the walk-on is denied the success that often justifies the sacrifice.
For draft-eligible baseball players this spring, the loss is compounded by financial decisions MLB is making in response to the shutdown.
Normally 40 rounds, the June 10 draft has been cut to five rounds, per ESPN, plus a cap of five free agents per team. With only four career starts, Enger’s spring was critical to improving his chances.
In addition, MLB owners are using the economic crisis to help justify its controversial decision to contract Minor League Baseball, reducing from 160 teams to 120, which will decrease roster spots by about 25 percent. The decision is being made over the objections of many personnel executives in charge of player development.
What could have been a storybook ending for Enger has been thwarted by the worst pandemic in a century.
While Enger still hopes to be drafted in June, the NCAA granted all spring athletes a red-shirt year. He knows he can return to the UW as a junior – seniors are given minimal minor league contracts – to complete his business degree and chase down the all-conference season he sought. When he’s done playing baseball, Enger plans to join his parents’ business that makes San Juan Seltzer.
If he is selected, Enger’s UW career will conclude with four starts and 34 appearances. But it will end as the embodiment of what is endearing about college athletics, and sets a standard.
“He’s one of those guys that we bring up to the younger guys,” said Emanuels. “Maybe he wasn’t given the time of day early in his career. But he competed.”
With the stay-home, stay-healthy order extended through May, he has a few more weeks without baseball to reflect on his career. He may realize the USC game was not just another start, his junior season not just another year. It was the path less traveled. A path that has prepared him to hit the homestretch at top speed when baseball resumes.
Kevin Ticen is a former walk-on catcher turned captain for the University of Washington baseball team. He was also an Anaheim Angels farmhand. He spent five years on the Huskies baseball coaching staff and still coaches a high school-aged summer baseball team. His 2019 book, When It Mattered Most, chronicles the Seattle Metropolitans’ historic 1917 Stanley Cup championship.