Home is where the heart of the baseball lineup is for John Jensen.
The former Santa Barbara High and SBCC star, who found only spotty playing time this spring during his senior season at UC Irvine, will get a do-over next year at Westmont College.
“This COVID-19 pandemic opened some doors for me and gave me the option of playing again in my hometown,” Jensen said. “I was planning to finish my senior year at UC Irvine. But after the rest of our season was canceled, I reached out to coach (Robert) Ruiz and he welcomed me with open arms.
“He’s a great offensive-minded coach, they’ve got a real good team atmosphere and culture there, and they have great facilities, too. And it’s basically here in my backyard.”
The NAIA, like the NCAA, has granted seniors an extra year of eligibility since this season was curtailed by the coronavirus.
“We saw him play over the years and always loved the way he played the game,” Ruiz said. “We feel he’s a pretty dynamic athlete who has the chance to be a big bat in the heart of our lineup.”
Jensen, a two-time All-Channel League selection at Santa Barbara High, batted .492 in 2016 to earn All-CIF Southern Section Division 2 honors.
He was the Western State Conference Player of the Year and a JC All-Region selection for SBCC the next season, batting .338 with seven home runs. He followed that up by batting .306 with four homers and 37 RBIs as a sophomore to regain his spot on the All-WSC team.
Jensen manned third base for the Dons and Vaqueros but transitioned into the outfield while playing for the Santa Barbara Foresters during the summer of 2018.
“We see him as a guy who’s prepared to play two or three positions for us — we’ll see where he fits in with all of the rest of the guys in the fall,” Ruiz said. “He could play right or center field, or potentially third base.
“We graduated a good group of nine seniors and three of them were in the top five spots in our lineup. With his experience and versatility, we feel he’s a guy who can come in and really fill a hole there for us.”
Jensen played in 32 games during his junior year at Irvine, making 19 starts in the outfield as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching.
He reasserted himself this season when play was halted. He had gotten only seven plate appearances as a pinch-hitter through the Anteaters’ first 11 games, taking three walks. His first hit of the year was a pinch double at Washington on March 1.
His next at-bat was even bigger. He broke up a pitcher’s duel at USC on March 3 by yanking a pinch-hit, three-run home run over the fence in right-centerfield to propel Irvine to a 5-1 victory. The seventh-inning blow was only the second hit of the game for the Anteaters.
“I was just waiting for my opportunity, showing up to practice and working hard every day so that I’d be ready if my name was called,” Jensen said. “My dad was at that game, and my mom and brother were watching the live stream.
“It was hard not getting the at-bats I wanted, so when I came up and did that, my dad was pretty happy. It was a great moment.”
Jensen got his first start of the season three games later against Sacramento State. It turned out to be Irvine’s last game of the season.
“I’d have some really good games but then it was hard to get back into the lineup,” said Jensen, who finished this spring with a batting average of .286. “I was trying my best to be a good teammate. I had a good relationship with all the guys and I have a lot of respect for coach (Ben) Orloff.
“It just didn’t turn out to be the best fit for me there.”
Jeff Walker and Steve Hardesty, his former coaches at SBCC, suggested Westmont as the best place for a new start.
“I had a lot of doubt about where to go and they really helped me in that process,” Jensen said.
He reached out to former Westmont All-American Bryce Morison, one year his senior at Santa Barbara High, for further validation.
“He had nothing but good things to say about their program and how they develop players,” Jensen said.
Ruiz also got good reports from Jensen’s former teammate.
“I sent him a text and he vouched for his character as a person,” he said. “To see how excited he got when he heard John was coming here, I think that spoke volumes about the type of kid he is.”
Jensen, the son of John and Marta Jensen, has been working out with his younger brother Zach, who redshirted at SBCC this season after breaking his finger. He hopes to resume playing next month for the Portland Pickles, a summer collegiate team in the West Coast League.
He had a sweet summer with the Pickles last year, batting .338 with seven homers and 14 stolen bases in 40 games.
“It’d be nice to go back up there and get some at-bats,” Jensen said. “I’ve struggled finding batting cages around here that aren’t closed, but maybe I’ll be able to hit at Westmont in a bit.”
Sooner, if not later.