Ex-Cardinal pitcher eyes future with Blue Jays

By Zach Lucero


Former Cardinal pitching ace Eugene “Geno” Encina is playing minor league ball after he was selected in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft by the Toronto Blue Jays.

Encina, a 6-foot-4 righthander, had just finished his third season on the mound for the University of the Incarnate Word Cardinals when he was selected in the 18th round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the 542nd player selected in the draft, which started June 8 and ended June 13.

During the draft, Encina said he had been contacted by a number of teams including the Florida Marlins, Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays.  He worked out for the Marlins in the weeks leading up to the draft and thought they might be the team to take him, but he said he was happy when he heard from the Blue Jays before his selection.

Encina, 21, is only the eighth player in Incarnate Word baseball history to be drafted by a major league club. The last Cardinal to be picked was Elroy Urbina in the 2011 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 37th round. Encina is the third-highest draft pick in school history behind Reynol Mendoza (seventh round, 1992) and Eric Corbell (16th round, 1990).  He is also the sixth pitcher in program history to be drafted.
His junior year, Encina missed UIW’s first five games with an injured left shoulder. However, Encina finished the season with an ERA of 2.19. He finished his UIW career ranked first in school history in career earned run average (2.70) and walks per 9 innings (1.60).  Over the past two seasons he has posted two of the top 10 ERAs in school history, 2.19 in 2015 and 2.64 in 2014.  He went 17-18 for his career, tossing 236.2 innings with 182 strikeouts and only 42 walks.
Four days after being drafted, Encina flew to Tampa, Fla., for about three weeks to work out in mini-camp. He played in a few games in the Gulf Coast League before getting called up to the Bluefield Blue Jays, in the Rookie Appalachian League representing the twin cities of Bluefield, W.Va., and Bluefield, Va.

“I was very fortunate to be drafted to the Toronto Blue Jays and it was a feeling of mixed emotions,” Encina said. “To be honest I had no idea the Blue Jays were interested in me. A lot of teams had called me during the draft and I ended up coming to terms with Toronto and when they wanted to draft me.”

Being drafted to the major leagues was a dream come true for Encina. Before coming to UIW, he pitched at Brandeis High School in San Antonio. A former UIW teammate, catcher Colton Bessett, said he and Encina have formed a great bond since they were freshmen and he’s watched Encino mature.

“When he first started out he would show a lot of emotion on the mound when things didn’t go as planned, but last year he really toned that down and just pitched and off the field his work ethic increased exponentially,” Bessett said. “(The Blue Jays get a) young pitcher with a lot of potential (who) gets better every year. They get a guy in need of development but is definitely willing to do what it takes to achieve his dream.

Cardinal outfielder Mark Whitehead said he loved playing defense when Encina was pitching.

“(We always knew he would be at his best and his ability to work fast and continually throw strikes keeps you in the game on ‘D,’ ” Whitehead said.

In a UIW news release, Head Coach Dan Heep said Encina’s selection was “great for our program. I am happy for Geno. You hear a lot of different things heading into the draft and we told him to not get too wrapped up in it all. I told him that if the situation was right and the money was right that he should sign. I’m encouraging him to still finish up his degree, but this is a great opportunity for him.”

Encina, who was majoring in communication arts with a concentration in journalism, said he does plan on coming back and finishing his degree at UIW. However, but as of now he is going to finish the season with the Blue Jays, then take a year off from school to train during the off season to get ready for spring training.

He doesn’t know the Blue Jays’ plans for his future in their system but as of right now he is a starting pitcher who’s “looking to give our team a chance to win in whatever situation they need me in.”

His time at UIW as a starter and reliever prepared him well for the pros, Encina said.

“The coaches prepared me to get in shape physically for the professional level and I feel as if the atmosphere at UIW helped me mature off the field and become ready to be a professional in all aspects of life. From teachers to advisers to the students, they all helped in my success and brought me to where I am today.

“I’m happy to be playing the game I love for a living and to be at the level I am. I worked my whole life to be here and I understand the long road ahead of me to make it to the big leagues but this is the life I chose and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”