The future is now for Jordan Sprinkle of the UCSB baseball team.
The redshirt freshman, the heir apparent at shortstop to star senior McClain O’Connor, has already entered some rarified air as his injury replacement. The College Baseball Foundation named Sprinkle this week to its Watch List for the 2021 Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award.
“He’s stepped into a role and has put himself into a situation where he’s not going to come out of the lineup,” coach Andrew Checketts said. “That’s a credit to him for maximizing the opportunity and being ready to go when he got his chance.”
He’d be a sure-bet for any rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger Award. The school that put walk-on Shane Bieber on the path to last season’s American League Cy Young Award is now riding the hot bat of a player who got only two plate appearances all last season and little offseason experience because of COVID-19.
Checketts figured he wouldn’t be ready for a major role when the Gauchos opened workouts last fall.
“We saw that with a lot of guys, a lot of the freshmen who missed the spring season and didn’t get a lot of summer ball,” he said. “He played a little, but he didn’t get the at bats that most guys would, and so he wasn’t quite ready yet.
“Then we had the injury … and he got in there.”
Sprinkle entered March like a lion as soon as O’Connor went down in the Oregon series. The freshman from Palm Desert now ranks first on the team in hits (48), second in batting average (.410) and runs scored (33), third in doubles (10), third in slugging percentage (.590), and fourth in on-base percentage (.458).
Checketts recruited him with the hope that he’d be another Clay Fisher, the shortstop whose golden glove helped UCSB advance to the 2016 College World Series.
“He’s got range and he’s twitchy and he’s got arm strength,” he said. “It’s not as natural as Clay was at this point, but if I’m a pro scout watching him at this point, there’s just not a ton of college guys like him who have the tools to stick at short at the next level.
“We thought he was going to be a premier defender that would be kind of light offensively and might gradually get to the point where he would be a solid offensive player.”
Sprinkle was solid gold during last weekend’s UC San Diego series, making Collegiate Baseball’s National Players of the Week List after going 10-for-18 at the plate. He tied the school’s single-game record of 12 total bases in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader after going 4-for-4 with six RBIs and four runs scored.
He also became the first Gaucho to hit back-to-back home runs since Austin Bush in 2017.
“He swung the bat well when we got back in January and he DHed the first game for us because of what he did in January and February,” Checketts said. “We felt like he was coming along.”
Sprinkle went 2-for-5 with a double in the season opener against Santa Clara. He continued to hit even while playing sparingly, but he became a fixture in the lineup after O’Connor’s injury.
“(Zach) Rodriguez has kind of been in the same boat — once he got in there, he wasn’t going to come out,” Checketts said of UCSB’s starting right fielder. Rodriguez is batting a team-high .413 with seven home runs and a team-best 39 RBIs.
The Gaucho coach does face some difficult decisions when O’Connor and another injured star, second baseman Marcos Castanon, return to the lineup. Jason Willow has filled in admirably at second after platooning in centerfield with Steele Ledford earlier in the season.
“Willow has played errorless second base and he’s starting to swing the bat,” Checketts said. “He’s hitting over .300 in conference play. So it’s a good problem to have in a couple of weeks when we get those guys back.”
UCSB hasn’t missed a beat with their replacements, ranking 22nd in the nation with records of 24-10 overall and 15-5 in Big West Conference play — one game behind league-leading UC Irvine.
Sprinkle, who turned 20 just last month, has risen with the challenge. Checketts especially liked his moxie after having been picked off first base during Sunday’s game.
“He stole on a 3-0 pitch later in the game, and usually a guy shuts it down at 3-0,” he said. “He showed some savvy and stole it almost standing up.
“He’s really grown as a baserunner. He’s fearless but smart, and he picked his spot.”
And when the chips were down for UCSB, that spot was shortstop.