When Seton Hall center fielder Derek Jenkins reaches first base, everyone and their mother knows what is coming next. Second base is now in his crosshairs and it is just a matter of time before he will try to steal. The next pitch is thrown, but don’t blink—because by the time you open your eyes again, Jenkins will be standing in scoring position.
Many high school athletes are encouraged to play multiple sports in order to stay active during the offseason. At North Hunterdon High School, Jenkins played baseball, basketball and football while earning nine varsity letters along the way. Jenkins showed promise in each sport and was the captain of all three teams as a senior. When it came down to which one he wanted to pursue in college, unlike most, Jenkins decided to play college baseball. However, it was not initially his first choice.
“It actually wasn’t (my first choice),” Jenkins said. “Honestly, up until the summer before my senior year, I thought I was going to play football in college. I was probably better at football pretty much the whole way through until I realized that I have a better chance of moving up levels in baseball.”
Jenkins was able to take the “competitive edge” from football and basketball in order to help improve at baseball.
“I played three sports my whole life,” Jenkins said. “I was sick if I wasn’t winning. I was pissed off and kind of needed that edge to get me going so it is something that I bring to the field every day.”
One thing that kept Jenkins from playing football was his size. The senior star stands 5-foot-8- inches and weighs 155 pounds, but has always let his play do the talking instead of the measurements.
“It is something that you can’t think of that much,” Jenkins said. “It is hard because you have these guys on some teams that can hit the ball 400 feet. I understand that I am probably not going to do that, but there are other ways I can make up for that.”
One of those ways is his speed, which so many Pirate fans have become accustomed to seeing from Jenkins at Seton Hall. During his career, heading into Wednesday, Jenkins has stolen 115 bases in 138 attempts.
First base coach Mark Pappas has seen the bulk of those steals up close. He never gets tired of it.
“There are always times when he does not get the best jump. We talk about it: ‘Hey, this is what it looks like,’ and he may just see it a hair late. But with his ability— we call it make-up speed—he can overcome a bad read when somebody else couldn’t and he can just outrun the ball. When he does get good jumps, I don’t know if there are too many people in the country who can throw him out.”
As a senior, Jenkins leads the country with 45 stolen bases and has been caught only five times. Teams have tried time and again to cut down the Pirate base-stealer, but he still manages swipe bases even with the reputation Jenkins has obtained. Seton Hall catcher Matt Fortin has tried to accomplish the difficult task during intrasquad games.
“I have thrown him out a couple of times, but he has probably got a lot more on me than I have him,” Fortin said. “You put your head down for two seconds and go get a drink of water and he is on third base and he started at first. It is fun to watch him play and he is a really good teammate.”
For Jenkins, base stealing comes down to that first initial step after he decides that he is going to steal. That is the most important part of swiping bags.
“I look at the attributes that (the pitcher) has,” Jenkins said. “The next thing I think about is how quick he is to the plate. I don’t even think about who the catcher is, the catcher can be a guy throwing the ball really hard down to second base, but I learned this year that the most important thing is that first initial jump. When I see that (the pitcher) has intent on going to the plate, I’ll think of that first quick step.”
Seton Hall’s pitchers have experience trying to pick off Jenkins, and it is safe to say that they are glad that he is on their side.
“I definitely enjoy going up against him when he takes his lead off of first base and I try to be quick to the plate,” pitcher Zach Prendergast said. “It definitely makes me and all of the other pitchers better having him.”
It is safe to say that they are glad that he is on their side.
“I definitely enjoy going up against him when he takes his lead off of first base and I try to be quick to the plate,” starting pitcher Zach Prendergast said. “It definitely makes me and all of the other pitchers better having him on the bases.”
Jenkins has plenty of pressure on him as the nation’s leading base stealer because of the target on his back, but putting the pressure on the opposing team and helping the Pirates win matter more to the speedster.
“The only way that it factors in is that the other team is thinking about me,” Jenkins said. “If I am helping out the team that is what success is. It is not necessarily the number. If the other team’s pitchers are thinking about ‘oh, is he stealing?’ If their coaches, their catcher, their middle infielders, whoever is covering the bag is thinking about me stealing that helps my team out.”
Besides winning a Big East Championship, there is one other thing that Jenkins would like to accomplish before his Seton Hall career is over and that is steal home plate. Jenkins is hoping to do it when the moment is right.
“The moment is in the future. I hope it is soon,” Jenkins said. “As long as it is in a situation where I can put my team on top or help the team out that is the most important thing. I’ll keep asking Coach Sheppard for the green light and hopefully he will give it to me at some point.”
Head coach Rob Sheppard knows how hard Jenkins has worked to get to this point and the many ways that he contributes to this baseball team.
“He is a really good athlete,” Sheppard said. “He put in a lot of extra work on his own that really paid off and we are seeing that come to fruition now.”
Jenkins is not only the team and national leader in stolen bases, but he also leads Seton Hall with a .307 batting average as well as 50 hits heading into Wednesday. The strides Jenkins has made hitting the ball are impressive. Sheppard noted the work ethic that Jenkins and his team have in leading to big improvements this season.
Jenkins along with seniors Zack Weigel and Chris Chiaradio are important leaders on this team. Weigel and Chiaradio are also players who have had success stealing bases during their careers. It all fits in with the way the Pirates want to play.
“It is contagious, that is our style,” Sheppard said. “We want to put pressure on a defense and we are going to run until they stop us and if they throw us out that is part of it. You can’t be afraid to be thrown out.”
The nation’s leading base stealer was “hesitant” at times last season because he would focus on not getting thrown out as opposed to stealing a base. Those days, much like first base when he steals, are in the rearview mirror for Jenkins.
“I didn’t want to get thrown out and I was thinking of that more,” Jenkins said. “Now, as soon as I see something, if the pitcher is hesitant I’ll know that I’ll be able to go. That is the main thing, the confidence level and the base stealer’s mindset that you got to go.”
Soon, Jenkins will have to go for good as his Seton Hall career is nearing a close. As far as his legacy is concerned, he just wants to be remembered for working hard for his team and program.
“I just want to be remembered as a guy that came to the field every day, worked his tail off on the field and off the field,” Jenkins said. “A guy who helped each player the same way and didn’t treat anyone differently. The biggest thing for me is just helping other people and what I leave to the guys when I graduate.”
For Jenkins, it is all about trying to make his teammates better players and men more than his speed and skills on the field. That is what he wants you to think of when remembering his college days. Coach Sheppard will certainly miss Jenkins and his senior teammates.
“I always miss my seniors. It is always tough when you spend so much time with guys,” Sheppard said. “Not only four years here, but through the recruiting process. I love my guys and this is a special group.”
Next up for Jenkins is hopefully achieving a lifelong dream of becoming a professional athlete. It is something he started thinking about when he was just a boy.
“Ever since I was three years old, I’ve always wanted to be that guy on TV,” Jenkins said. “I wanted to play professional, not necessarily a specific sport, but it was always my goal and dream to play a sport professionally. To be able to say that I am a professional ballplayer, that is my dream. I have not lost sight of that so hopefully if I am blessed and I have the opportunity to do that it is what I am going to do.”
If Jenkins does not make it, he can fall back on the fact that he has put in the hours studying towards a Seton Hall degree in addition to those long hours playing baseball.
Whatever Jenkins decides to do professionally one thing remains clear, he will work extremely hard to be the best at it. If he does make it in baseball professionally, his work ethic, speed and athleticism will likely be a major reason why.
If one day Jenkins pops up on your television screen with a helmet on and a good lead off of first or second base do not change the channel. If you do, you might miss greatness taking off for second base.
Sean Saint Jacques can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. edu or on Twitter @SSaintj7.