PLEASANT HILL, CA (Aug. 18, 2023) — When Christian Encarnacion-Strand was a freshman at College Park High School in the fall of 2014 the school’s baseball coach Andy Tarpley nicknamed him “Rook.” The confident newcomer told the coach he would break into a senior-laden starting lineup of players who had won a North Coast Section championship the previous spring and was to be ranked preseason No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.
Now, nine years later, Encarnacion-Strand indeed is a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds after making his major league debut last month, hitting a three-run pinch hit homer off the San Francisco Giants in his fourth MLB plate appearance.
Encarnacion-Strand was in the midst of a sensational minor league season when he finally got the call to come up to the big club on July 16 from the Reds’ AAA Louisville Bats team.
First to hear the news late that Sunday afternoon were his family including Uncle Casey and Aunt Michelle Strand, their two children and coach Tarpley, which set off a wild scramble for them to arrange a flight to make it to Encarnacion-Strand’s debut the next evening in Cincinnati.
They flew from the Bay Area to Nashville then drove across the state of Kentucky, arriving in the parking lot of Great American Ball Park just in time to hear Christian’s first MLB at bat described on the radio. The next day Encarnacion-Strand came off the bench and made his first big league hit a memorable one.
He had a chance to make the Reds opening day roster coming out of spring training, but the organization wanted him to work on his defense and cut down on strikeouts. He hit .331 with an other-worldly 1.042 OPS, ranking fourth in Minor League Baseball in total bases with 20 home runs in 67 games for Louisville.
The Reds are right in the middle of the National League Wild Card race and many fans were clamoring for Encarnacion-Strand to get a call up as they viewed his glossy minor league exploits.
Hometown hero returns to Bay Area against Giants Aug. 28-30
He’s been playing both corner infield positions and designated hitter for the Reds. Encarnacion-Strand’s first 100 plate appearances included three home runs and 14 runs batted in but has struck out 29 times.
College Park High exploits
College Park won the 2014 North Coast Section Division II baseball championship with an overall 27-3 record. They then moved up to Division I for the 2015 season, when Encarnacion-Strand join a loaded team that had seven players who would go on to Division I college baseball and four to professional ball.
They were so stacked that USA Today declared them the No. 1 team in America before the 2015 season. The team raised money to go to a prestigious national invitational tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina where they won three of four games. Strand, who was barely 15 years old, held his own against those nationally ranked teams.
Late in that 2015 regular season De La Salle, the defending D-1 NCS champs, played College Park in a non-league game at Cal’s Evans Diamond that outdrew the Cal-Stanford game with the Spartans winning 3-0.
There were at least 20 major league scouts in the stands watching some De La Salle players but primarily the Falcons senior trio of Willie MacIver (currently on Rockies AAA team), all-everything pitcher Joe DeMers (who retired from pro ball last year after a star-studded career for USA Baseball teams on the international level) and Trevor Larnach (1st round pick of the Twins in 2018 and since 2021 on their MLB roster).
The teams met in the NCS championship game and the Falcons (26-4) turned the tables on DLS, winning 5-2, the only time since 2014 that De La Salle has failed to win the Section championship.
With his star-studded teammates graduating after that season Encarnacion-Strand became a marked man over the next three years, often seeing one good pitch a game to hit, coach Tarpley recalls, yet he was a first-team all-league section three times in a row and league MVP as a senior, among numerous honors.
He also played club ball for Tarpley’s Lamorinda Baseball Club teams including reaching the semi-finals of the Connie Mack World Series, where he was a finalist in the home run derby. Tarpley’s wife Sherri would feed the pitching machine for Encarnacion-Strand to take batting practice.
In Encarnacion-Strand’s sophomore and junior seasons De La Salle eliminated College Park in the NCS semi-finals. Over four years he played 103 games in College Park colors with an overall .385 batting average, 125 hits, 79 RBIs and 15 home runs. Even with all those gaudy numbers he wasn’t drafted after his 2018 senior season.
During his four years, College Park defeated Clayton Valley Charter seven of nine times and Ugly Eagles coach Casey Coakley has great admiration for Encarnacion-Strand’s ability. “For four years Christian was a force in the lineup of the College Park Falcons. He was a player that I watched play and from a very early stage said he had the ’it’ factor.
“I said he will be playing professional baseball someday. You could tell he loved to play the game and had the physical tools to do it at a high level. I can proudly say we never pitched around him as my feeling is when you play special talent it’s owed to the players on both sides to get after it and compete. He hit the ball very hard more times than not…. but I feel great knowing that we let the kids get after it and compete.“
He attended Yavapai Junior College in Arizona where they play with wood bats. As a freshman in 2019 he was Conference Player of the Year, first team All-America and first team NJCAA All-Region. After that season he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 34th round of the MLB Draft.
After the canceled 2020 pandemic season he went to Oklahoma State, where in 2021 he became the first OSU player in four years named a first team All-America. He was drafted in the fourth-round and signed with the Minnesota Twins.
Encarnacion-Strand was the Midwest League’s 2022 Most Valuable Player before being traded to the Reds that August and continued his upward trajectory in AAA this season until his call up.
Sport’s longest name
The 23-year-old has Encarnacion across the back of his Reds uniform because Encarnacion-Strand won’t fit. In fact, Christian Encarnacion-Strand is the longest name ever for a MLB player.
Encarnacion is his father’s last name and Strand his mother’s. He was raised by his grandmother until she passed his sophomore year in high school when his Uncle Casey Strand, a Hall of Fame two-time state high school wrestling champion at College Park, took him in.
After being separated from his all-star high school teammates for many years Encarnacion-Strand homered off DeMers in a minor league game. Larnach and Encarnacion-Strand both had offensive success when they played against one another in a AAA game and the pair may match up on a major league diamond now too.
Jay Bedecarré is a long-time resident and writer in Concord and Clayton. He began his newspaper writing career while still a senior at Mt. Diablo High School and he has been part of The Pioneer since its inception in 2003. Jay also operates Bay Area Festivals, presenting events around the San Francisco Bay Area including Bay Area KidFest annually in Downtown Concord.