By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
Ian Jenkins could have quit baseball a long time ago.
After battling injuries much of his career, including Tommy John surgery last season, he thought seriously about giving it up.
“I have had a lot of reasons to quit baseball,” he said, “but I guess my love of the game just compels me to keep going.”
After waiting more than a year for his opportunity, Jenkins was glad Sunday that he didn’t give it up.
In his second start of the season for South Carolina, Jenkins slugged his first career home run and had three hits as the Gamecocks swept Valparaiso with a 12-6 win. His third-inning home run was one of four for the Gamecocks, who are second in the nation in home runs.
“Days like this are why I keep going on. It was fun, really fun,” Jenkins said Sunday.
A redshirt freshman from Suwanee, Ga., Jenkins has battled injuries for much of his athletic career. As two-sport star in high school, he has suffered 19 broken bones, five torn ligaments and four surgeries. He says most of his problems have been freak injuries, like breaking a bone in his foot walking into a Chinese restaurant.
“I get hurt doing stupid stuff,” he said. “Freak accidents.”
Jenkins displayed impressive power during the fall season last year, but suffered a shoulder injury and then an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss her first season in Columbia. He spent much of this past fall recovering from surgery and was limited when spring practice began.
He had only three plate appearances until Saturday, when Mark Kingston inserted him into the lineup as the DH. He struck out in his first at-bat Saturday and then hit two fly balls in his next two at-bats.
Kingston liked what he saw Saturday and put him back in the lineup Sunday. He responded with three hits in four at-bats, including a home run and a double. He scored two runs.
“He’s overcome injuries. He takes as many swings as anybody, but just recently we have seen a shorter swing, a swing we thought might have a chance to play in the game,” Jenkins said. “We got him in the game yesterday and I thought he progressively got a little better each at-bat as he got comfortable. We wanted to get him another game today and he made the most of it.”
The highlight was the third-inning home run, a long drive over the right-center field wall. When the blast cleared the wall, TJ Hopkins, Jacob Olson and the rest of his teammates came pouring out of the dugout to greet a smiling Jenkins.
“It was a great feeling,” Jenkins said. “I have been through a lot and my teammates have been behind me from the start, so when the ball left my bat, I was elated. And to see my teammates congratulate me, that was amazing, a great feeling.”
“We knew it was gone,” said Olson, who hit two home runs Sunday. “We hopped the rail and took off to home plate and couldn’t wait to get there. It was something special.”
Hopkins, who also homered Sunday, wasn’t surprised by Jenkins’ blast. He’s seen his power before.
“It didn’t surprise me,” he said. “I’ve hit a lot with him and I always tell him how gifted a hitter he is. He puts the work in and it’s just awesome to see him go out there and do that.”
While he waited on his opportunity, Jenkins has been working hard on his hitting and his swing. Coach Kingston suggested he shorten his swing, and it paid off Sunday.
Jenkins, an all-state player in high school and a 40th-round pick by the Reds in 2017, said he was trying to learn from his favorite player — Barry Bonds.
“My favorite hitter is Barry bonds, so I started choking up on the bat some,” he said. “My power is useless if I can’t make contact. So Coach King and I just worked on a shorter swing and being direct to the ball. Once I did that, stuff started happening for me.”
No one was happier Sunday than Kingston, who presented Jenkins with a game ball after the victory.
“That was his first chance to really have an impact here,” he said. “He’s taken 10 million swings since he’s been on campus, so really happy for him.”