As Missouri State’s baseball regular season concluded in non-spectacular fashion, Walker Jenkins could only watch and wonder if his playing days were finished.
The Bears’ senior shortstop was hit by a pitch attempting to bunt during an early May series opener against Southern Illinois, resulting in a broken finger. It hurt, both physically and emotionally.
“A two-team fastball came in on me and it crushed my finger,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t sure how fast it was gonna heal and I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen. But I worked my butt off to get back on the diamond and just decided to be gutsy about it.
“I knew this was my last couple of weeks of baseball. I just really wanted to pull through. My teammates were counting me.”
Missouri State coach Keith Guttin said his team would not be preparing to play Oklahoma State on Friday in the NCAA Tournament without Jenkins, who was one of the keys in the Bears’ improbable run to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title over the weekend.
Big weekend at the plate, in the field
Jenkins hit .454 (10-for-22), hit two home runs and played error-free defense as Missouri State went 5-1 to earn the 12th NCAA Tournament berth in program history. He hit a home run in the 13-3 title-game victory on Sunday over Southern Illinois — the same team he was injured against 23 days earlier.
“We don’t win it without him,” Guttin said of Jenkins, one of six Bears named to the all-tournament team.
The Bears were 3-6 to conclude the regular season as Jenkins watched from the sideline. In his absence, the defense suffered as players were shifted to fill the void and the Bears fell to a No. 6 seed, needing to win a play-in to simply make it into the tournament’s double-elimination bracket.
Jenkins used extra padding in his fielder’s glove and batting glove while working to stay sharp in the days prior to the tournament. But for a good chunk of time, he could do little but stay patient and have positive thoughts.
“I was just being really careful not to re-injure it,” he said. “The last couple of weeks I just tried to stay in the present and stay with everything mentally and be ready for this moment, in case I was ready to play. I guess it worked out.
“It’s pretty special,” he added, after the Bears’ on-field celebration Sunday at Hammons Field. “This is the type of stuff you dream of growing up.”
Guttin, Missouri State’s 40-year head coach, said Jenkins’ determination to come back from adversity is to be commended, especially after he was benched early in the season.
“At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t playing shortstop,” Guttin said. “He wasn’t playing (anywhere), but he stayed after it and kept working. He got his opportunity and he did something with it.”
The long road to Missouri State
Jenkins’s road to this point has been long and winding. The graduate of Sun Prairie High in Wisconsin attended Madison College for two years and then went on to Virginia to play in 2020, starting four games in the pandemic-shortened season.
“Coming out of juco I took two official visits, one to Missouri State and one to Virginia,” Jenkins said. “Basically once the pandemic happened, my junior college coach called me and asked me what I was thinking about for the next year. I told him I was thinking about transferring. He put me in contact with Missouri State.
“About 2 1/2 hours of being in the transfer portal, they called me and I had a good feeling that I was coming here.”
The 2021 season was a struggle as Jenkins hit only .208 while starting 42 games. But he, like many other returnees, has seen his production and level of fun soar under new hitting coach Joey Hawkins.
Jenkins’ .336 batting average is second on the team that has 99 home runs (second-most in school history to 144 in 1999) and averages 7.6 runs.
“A lot of credit to Joey for working with these hitters and this offense,” Guttin said. “It’s paid off. He communicates well with these guys and they trust him.
“We got guys back healthy so they could be at their most-comfortable infield positions. That really has helped our defense.”
Jenkins said on a personal level, going from injured to the NCAA Tournament over the last week has been nothing short of remarkable. It extended his baseball career before he begins an internship this summer for his Master’s in sports management, at Oklahoma State of all places.
“It is unbelievable,” Jenkins said of the Bears’ postseason run. “We all believed in each other, but there’s a lot of people who didn’t believe in us. To prove everyone wrong, it’s a pretty cool experience.”
Baseball Bears in NCAA Tournament
Missouri State’s baseball team won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to qualify for the 12th NCAA Tournament in program history.
The Bears (30-27) face national No. 7 seed Oklahoma State (39-20) at 6 p.m. Friday on the Cowboys’ home field, O’Brate Stadium, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The game will be televised on ESPN+.
Arkansas (38-18) and Grand Canyon (41-19) play in Friday’s opening game at noon Friday. The remainder of the schedule:
Game 3 – Winner G1 vs. Winner G2 – Noon CT (TV TBD)
Game 4 – Loser G1 vs. Loser G2 – 6 p.m. CT (TV TBD)
Sunday, June 5
Game 5 – Winner G4 vs. Loser G3 – Noon CT (TV TBD)
Game 6 – Winner G3 vs. Winner G5 – 6 p.m. CT (TV TBD)
Monday, June 6
Game 7 – Winner G6 vs. Loser G6 (if necessary) – 6 p.m. CT (TV TBD)
Ticket info: Tickets for the NCAA Stillwater Regional can be purchased online at tickets.okstate.com/baseball or by calling the OSU Athletics Ticket Office at 877-255-4678.