‘Do you play basketball?’ Life as a nearly 7-foot UK pitcher
Former University of Kentucky star Sean Hjelle is on a quest to make Major League Baseball history. This weekend, his road to the big leagues brings him back to Lexington.
Fresh off the first win of his professional baseball career, Hjelle and his Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets face the Lexington Legends in a three-game series at Whitaker Bank Ballpark beginning Saturday. Hjelle is scheduled to start against the Legends in Monday’s series finale at 10:35 a.m.
Listed as the No. 6 overall prospect and No. 3 pitching prospect in the farm system of the San Francisco Giants — the team that selected him No. 45 overall in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft — Hjelle has been stringing together quality starts ever since his debut with the GreenJackets in early April.
On Wednesday, he finally got enough run support to bank his first victory. Hjelle pitched five innings, allowing six hits and one run while striking out eight, as Augusta defeated the West Virginia Power 8-3. Hjelle improved to 1-2 on the season and lowered his ERA to 2.84.
Speaking with the Herald-Leader from the team bus late Thursday night after Augusta dropped both games of a doubleheader against the Power, Hjelle said he was pumped for his to return to Lexington.
“It’s going to be really exciting for me to pitch in Lexington again. I’m obviously looking forward to it,” he said. “I plan to go back to my old watering holes and get some of the food I’ve been craving.”
So, what’s first on Hjelle’s agenda when he gets to town?
“Man, I really miss Joella’s chicken,” Hjelle said of the restaurant near UK’s campus. “I’ll definitely make a trip there.”
He also plans to reconnect with some friends when the UK baseball team returns from its three-game series at South Carolina, which concludes Sunday.
“I think some of the coaches and players are coming out Monday, so I’ll be able to see all the people that I’m looking forward to seeing again and spend some time with them. That’ll be the best part of the trip, for sure,” Hjelle said.
Asked about what stood out as the biggest difference between college and professional baseball, Hjelle cited the rigorous traveling schedule.
“You kind of know in college you’re going to be on the road every other weekend and maybe once during the week,” Hjelle said. “But we’ve been on the road almost all season. We started with an 11-game road trip because The Masters (golf tournament) was in Augusta … and we’re on another long trip now. We’re getting pretty familiar with that coach bus.”
Fortunately for Hjelle, the adjustment to a vagabond lifestyle has been easy. He said traveling has always been one of his favorite parts of life as a baseball player.
“Arguably, road trips are the most fun part. That’s where you get to know everybody,” Hjelle said. “You spend four to nine hours on a crammed bus going all across the country getting to know guys. People talk about sports teams being a family, and road trips are where those families are made. That part is still the same, and that’s pretty nice.”
And the most welcome difference in life on the road as a professional versus as a college player?
“No classes,” Hjelle said with a laugh. “I don’t have to do homework on the bus. I can finally sleep.”
After the Giants drafted Hjelle following his junior season at Kentucky, San Francisco scouting director John Barr called him a “guy who can contribute to the Giants in the near future.”
We see him being a starter in the big leagues,” Barr said.
Augusta is certainly using Hjelle like a prospect who’s on a fast track up the organizational ladder. As of Thursday, Hjelle had pitched a team-high 31 2/3 innings over seven starts this season. He’s second on the team with 36 strikeouts, four behind fellow starter Seth Corry.
If Hjelle does indeed manage to make it to the majors, he’ll share a unique distinction with another former college star from the Bluegrass state. At 6-foot-11, Hjelle would join former Morehead State pitcher Jon Rauch as the tallest players in MLB history. There are three MLB alumni listed at 6-foot-10, led by Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.
Barr said one of the reasons the Giants targeted Hjelle was because the athleticism he displayed as an amateur defied the expectations one would normally have of a player so tall.
“We like the way he handles himself,” Barr said. “He doesn’t look like a 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-11 pitcher because he moves so well. You expect him to be a little more gawky or something, but he actually moves his feet and he has a feel.”
For three seasons, University of Kentucky fans got a close-up look at how Hjelle handled himself while he racked up wins and accolades.
Hjelle finished his run as a Wildcat with an overall record of 22-10 and a career ERA of 3.68. As a sophomore in 2017, Hjelle torched Southeastern Conference opponents. He was named SEC Pitcher of the Year after going 7-1 with a 1.90 ERA in league play and finished the season 11-4 overall with a 3.89 ERA on his way to being named a second-team All-American.
If Kentucky fans want another look at the Wildcats’ former ace they should take advantage of the Legends’ showdown with the GreenJackets. Chances are, Hjelle will be moving up the ladder toward the majors soon. And no matter how many stops Hjelle makes on his way to achieving his big-league dreams, he said he plans to keep things simple.
“The mound will always be 60 feet, six inches away and my job every day is to put my team in position to win,” Hjelle said. “Those two things will never change as long as I’m pitching.”
GreenJackets at Legends
Three-game series: 6:35 p.m. Saturday, 2:05 p.m. Sunday and 10:35 a.m. Monday