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Lancaster Catholic grad Travis Jankowski takes the World Series stage with the Texas Rangers

  • By Jason Guarente/LNP | LancasterOnline
Lancaster Catholic grad Travis Jankowski is playing for the Texas Rangers in the World Series.

 AP Photo

Lancaster Catholic grad Travis Jankowski is playing for the Texas Rangers in the World Series.

This story is published in partnership with our sister newsroom LNP | LancasterOnline.

Stony Brook head coach Matt Senk wasn’t sure which player he was supposed to watch. All he knew was an overlooked recruit had caught the eye of a member of his staff.

Senk and assistant Joe Pennucci sat down together. They pressed play.

The batter had a nice-looking swing, and he crushed a deep fly ball into right-center field. Senk was interested. He wanted to learn more.

“That’s not him,” Pennuci said.

The video kept going. The coaches kept watching. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an outfielder burst into the frame and made an amazing catch.

That’s him,” Pennucci said.

It was Travis Jankowski, the Lancaster Catholic grad now playing for the Texas Rangers against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series.

Stony Brook, a small college on Long Island, doesn’t typically land the top recruits out of high school. Senk and his staff search for diamonds in the rough. Pennucci believed he found one. Senk agreed.

“I think we can do something with that kind of speed,” the head coach said. “It sold me right away to see how athletic he was on the field.”

Jankowski, an All-State selection in both football and baseball for the Crusaders, picked Stony Brook. Or maybe Stony Brook picked him. He became an All-American there. He played for the Seawolves in the College World Series.

Fourteen years after the coaches pressed play, Jankowski remains one of their greatest finds.

“We were the only Division I baseball program to offer him a scholarship, to my knowledge,” Senk said. “That commitment to him made him think we were the right place.”

Stony Brook is where Jankowski stopped being overlooked. It’s where he became a future first-round draft pick.

The Show

During the summer between Jankowski’s freshman and sophomore years, his dad, Paul, and brother, Tyler, decided they needed to have a talk.

What about life after baseball? Most players don’t make a living in this game. They need a Plan B.

“I looked at them like they were crazy,” Jankowski said. “Guys, there’s no Plan B. I was so naïve about how hard it was to make it in the big leagues. It wasn’t an aspiration. It was like, ‘No, it’s happening.’ ”

Texas Rangers outfielder Travis Jankowski makes a leaping catch against the Houston Astros.

AP Photo

Texas Rangers outfielder Travis Jankowski makes a leaping catch against the Houston Astros.

Jankowski met with an academic adviser and picked a major: health science. If worse came to worst, he could be an MRI technician. He was really just going through the motions. His singular focus remained making it to The Show.

Stony Brook’s coaches weren’t convinced of the big leagues back then. Jankowski arrived with a funky, hunched-over left-handed batting stance. As a kid he was always told to slap the ball to the left side of the field and use his speed to beat out hits.

That wasn’t going to work in college. Jankowski was instructed to stand more upright, and soon he started pulling the ball with more authority.

The road to becoming the 44th pick in the 2012 draft was unconventional. Jankowski went to a wooden bat league in tiny Marian, Kentucky, to iron out his new stance. He played through brutally cold early-season games in New York, with wind chills in the teens.

It was the summer of 2011, in the prestigious Cape Cod League, when Jankowski put his name on the radar. He was voted the league’s MVP.

“That’s when it was like, ‘This is legit; this is something special here,’” Senk said.

Pat Cantwell was Jankowski’s teammate at Stony Brook and in the Cape. Cantwell is now the bullpen catcher for the Rangers. The two are good friends.

There was a fielding play Jankowski made during his breakout summer that Cantwell can’t forget. The center fielder sprinted with his back to the infield, left his feet and fully extended to secure the ball. It should have been extra bases. It was an out.

“Nobody really believed he caught it until he stood up and threw it in,” Cantwell said. “It was one of those plays where you’re like, ‘That’s special.’ You’re not going to see that catch made many times. If at all.”

The San Diego Padres drafted Jankowski shortly before he turned 21. He began his climb.

The journey

Getting to the big leagues was relatively easy. Jankowski was right about that part. The 6-2, 190-pound first-rounder cruised through two full seasons in the minors and made his debut in August 2015.

It got harder from there.

Jankowski finished his first season in an 11-for-80 slump. Staying at the highest level, actually having a career, was no sure thing.

“This game punched me right in the teeth,” he said. “How was I going to respond to this? At that moment, you do have self-doubt. I’d be lying if I said I had all the confidence in the world.”

Jankowski persevered. Since being traded by the Padres in 2019, he has bounced around to the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners and the Rangers.

There has always been a roster spot for a player with such versatility and speed.

“He’s an absolute pleasure to be around at all times, regardless of how he’s playing,” Cantwell said. “He’s a great teammate and a better person.”

When Jankowski was with the Mets and was asked about his contributions to the team, he joked that no fan was ever going to buy his jersey.

Less than two weeks later, everyone on the Mets wore No. 16 with Jankowski on the back during a pregame workout. Jankowski earned his teammates’ affection despite making just 63 plate appearances that year.

The following season, after signing with the Rangers, he has a chance to win a ring.

The World Series

Jankowski had the same backyard World Series dream as the rest of us. Bases loaded. Bottom of the ninth. Home run.

Even for the men who have spent years in the major leagues, that imaginary moment seems out of reach.

“You almost visualize the World Series as a fantasy,” Jankowski said. “It’s not real. Then you’re in it, and you’re like, ‘Holy … this is real.’ It’s awesome. I’m not taking it for granted, because I know how hard it is to get here.”

Jankowski posted a .357 on-base percentage with 19 steals in 107 games for the Rangers. His role in the series was to be ready as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner or defensive replacement. After Adolis Garcia was injured in Game 3, Jankowski was in the starting lineup, batting ninth and playing right field in Game 4 Tuesday night.

He came through for the Rangers, singling and later scoring off a triple from Marcus Semien in the second inning. Jankowski then doubled home 2 runs with the bases loaded in the third before Semien followed with a 3-run homer to put their team up 10-0.

They’d go on to win 11-7 to take a 3-1 series lead over the Diamondbacks. Jankowski finished 2-for-4 at the plate and recorded 4 putouts in right field.

Travis Jankowski is congratulated by his Texas Rangers teammates during a game in July.

AP Photo

Travis Jankowski is congratulated by his Texas Rangers teammates during a game in July.

Each day requires a lot of preparation for a moment that may or may not arrive. Jankowski studies the opposing starter and every opposing reliever. He goes over the pickoff moves and figures out which count could allow him to steal.

Jankowski is the fourth Lancaster County native to play in the World Series. Don Wert, Bruce Sutter and Tom Herr are the others. All three of them won championships.

The dream for Jankowski has changed now that he’s here. It’s less dramatic. Sure, a home run would be nice. But all he wants is to contribute in some way, have his name appear in a box score and win.

Senk and many others from Jankowski’s college days are watching. They’re full of pride and excitement.

“He’s everything you would want in somebody,” Senk said. “He’s always gracious. Anything Stony Brook has asked of him, he’s more than willing to do it. That’s who he is. That’s his DNA.”

The World Series trophy was on display prior to Game 1. Players could look at it and stand near it. It was considered bad luck to touch it. Maybe Jankowski will get that chance when the series is over.

Nine years in the big leagues have led to one fall on the big stage. It all worked out for that naive kid from Catholic.

Jankowski didn’t need Plan B after all.

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