Fifth in runs scored and runs batted in. Third in hits. Tied for second in home runs.
Jacen Nalesnik has had quite the career at Lehigh.
Not that people would necessarily know it.
“He’s been maybe a little underappreciated here with so many other senior athletes having such great careers,” Lehigh baseball coach Sean Leary said. “He’s definitely one of them that deserves a little bit of the limelight.”
Nalesnik compares favorably to some of the best players the Lehigh baseball program has produced. He’s at or near the top of many of the career leaderboards, and his 13 home runs this year were tied for the most in a single season.
As a freshman coming in to Lehigh, Nalesnik wasn’t the dominant force he was today. A multi-sport athlete in high school, he said he always wanted to play baseball in college, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to.
Even when he did get the offer to play at Lehigh, it was in an unfamiliar position. After catching all throughout high school, he was being asked to play in the outfield.
“We just felt like we had a catcher we really believed in, and we thought, ‘How do you get your best team onto the field?’” Leary said. “You need some guys to sacrifice a little bit.”
Nalesnik conceded that it wasn’t the smoothest transition.
“When I got here, we had some good catchers and there was an opportunity for me to play in the outfield,” Nalesnik said. “So that’s where I went, and I was rough to begin. I’ve gotten better in the outfield over the past couple of years, too.”
Besides improving in the field, Nalesnik has made other adjustments since arriving at Lehigh.
Both he and Leary talked about how when he first started, he was a heavy front-foot hitter, which eliminates much of the potential for power. He’s adjusted his mechanics in that regard, as well as worked on his pitch selection and patience to get better pitches to hit.
That’s not to say the improvements happened overnight. Nalesnik puts in the time, often getting to the field early before practices or games to get the extra work in.
“If you were to drive by the field an hour early, it’d be rare that (Nalesnik’s) not there with his crew of six or eight guys getting extra work, (batting practice), taking extra fly balls,” Leary said.
Senior Anthony Rinaldi isn’t surprised by the transformation that Nalesnik has undergone, primarily because of that mentality.
“I think his work ethic was always there,” Rinaldi said. “It was just a matter of time before he fully turned into the player he could be.”
It was still a slow start for Nalesnik. Despite starting in 29 games his freshman season, he recorded just two extra-base hits, both doubles.
By the time his sophomore year came around, he was starting to see some of the results. Between the two seasons, he improved his average by over 50 points, his on-base percentage by over 30 points and his slugging percentage by over 125 points.
“The second half of his sophomore year, he might have had the best statistics going down the stretch,” Leary said. “Certainly, you could then see he was going from a contributor to a front-line player to eventually a superstar in our league.”
He’s only gotten better since then — he continued to improve on those numbers into his junior and senior seasons. This year, he leads the Mountain Hawks in runs scored, runs batted in, hits, total bases, home runs, slugging percentage and stolen bases, just to name a few.
Over the years, Nalesnik’s received recognition for his stellar play, as well as his work in the classroom. He was named to the Academic All-Patriot League team after his sophomore season and earned second team All-Patriot League honors for his performance last year.
However, he isn’t caught up with individual recognition. He’s most proud of the team’s championship two years ago.
That mindset reflects Nalesnik’s personality. Both Leary and Rinaldi said while he’s not the most vocal player, he is one to give everything on the field for the team. Leary talked about how Nalesnik can be seen sliding into fences and diving headfirst on game day, while Rinaldi applauded his competitive spirit.
“He’s a competitor, that’s probably one of my favorite qualities about him,” Rinaldi said. “Whether it’s hitting (batting practice) before a game or playing video games, he’s a competitor.”
That attitude has allowed Nalesnik to excel at Lehigh, equaling or bettering the numbers put up by some of Lehigh’s best players in history.
Some of those players, most recently Mike Garzillo, ’16, and Justin Pacchioli, ’15, have gone on to be drafted by an MLB team. Leary said Nalesnik could have that chance as well.
“From my perspective, I know he’s good enough to,” Leary said. “I just hope he gets the opportunity to play because doing this 22 years, he’s in the top five of all-time players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach.”
Nalesnik, however, said it’s not something he’s worrying about.
“That’s something I’ve been trying not to think about,” Nalesnik said. “I just try to focus on doing my job every day and winning games, and then if that’s something that presents itself after the season’s over, then that’s great.”
Regardless of his future career path, Nalesnik will go down as one of the best players in Lehigh baseball history.