Hayden Juenger, wearing a Missouri State baseball uniform, pitches during a game at Hammons Field
Hayden Juenger throws 95 mph and can pitch a fastball, cutter, curve and changeup. The former Missouri State Bear plays for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, one step below Major League Baseball, in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. (Photo by Mary Ellen Chiles)

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Hayden Juenger is on the fast track to Canada.

The former Missouri State closer was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth round in 2021 and was pitching in Triple-A one year later. He just finished his second spring training as a non-roster invitee with the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s getting closer to fulfilling his dream.

“It’s awesome. I love it,” Juenger said. “It’s crazy how fast it goes. It’s like, I’m young, but there are still 23-year-olds playing college baseball.”

‘I was afraid of the ball'

Not bad for a kid who was scared of the ball for years. He felt okay catching, but anxious about hard hits to the outfield. Then he became a pitcher. Eventually, he accepted the risk.

“I was like, ‘You know what? If it happens, it’s part of the game. It’s not on purpose. No one’s trying to do that,’” Juenger said.

He’s fended off a few line drives, including a 112-mph hit that bounced off the bottom of his foot last year. Luckily, his cleats cushioned the blow and kept him from a bone bruise or fracture.

Then there are the bats.

“Last year (while pitching), I broke a bat and the bat was spinning at me. And I was like, ‘If it hits me, it hits me. There’s nothing I can do about it.’”

It didn’t.

“You can’t think about it too much, because otherwise it’ll freak you out,” he said.

Life as a Bison

Juenger is back in Buffalo, where he pitches relief for the Bisons.

He said his second big league spring training was more comfortable than the first.

“I wouldn’t say I was walking on eggshells by any means, but I wasn’t myself,” Juenger said. “I was really tense. This year I was a lot more free.”

Juenger is still building up pitching endurance. He only threw 87 innings over three years at Missouri State, thanks to a COVID-shortened junior season in 2020. He was drafted that summer and pitched 20 innings in pro ball. He’s since averaged 82 innings in the last two seasons, injury-free.

“At the end of last year, I kind of ran out of gas,” Juenger said. “I was just tired.”

The Blue Jays were glad he didn’t wear down his arm in college, though some teams didn’t see it that way. Juenger said many scouts weren’t pleased with his low inning count at Missouri State.

“They felt there were games that I could have thrown in that I didn’t,” Juenger said. “But I was like, ‘Look, it’s up to them. It’s not up to me.’”

Missouri State Bears baseball coach Keith Guttin
Missouri State baseball coach Keith Guttin calls Hayden Juenger “a good kid.” Juenger said he “owes everything” to Guttin and former MSU pitching coach Paul Evans. (Photo by Missouri State University Creative Services)

Missouri State head coach Keith Guttin and former pitching coach Paul Evans, now at Drury, have their ways. “I love those guys to death, and I get it,” Juenger said. “I didn’t hold anything against them. I was a closer.”

Juenger liked being held to a high standard. He is used to it. Players were expected to attend class, like anyone else, and show up 15 minutes early to meetings. When Juenger saw Guttin this past fall, the coach asked him about family before baseball.

Guttin called Juenger “a great kid.”

“I liked his family’s dog, too,” Guttin said, dryly. “The dog’s on social media.”

Juenger's parents were serious about raising good kids

Juenger was raised in O’Fallon, Missouri, alongside a sister, Hayleigh, 14 months younger. He relishes time with his family.

The Juengers’ parents, who are both named Shannon, were serious about raising good kids. His dad was fond of saying, “Play stupid games; win stupid prizes.” The line has become a bit of a family joke now, but it was no laughing matter for young Hayden and Hayleigh.

The Juengers are devout Christians, which is one reason Hayden remains close with former Bears teammate and fellow pitcher Forrest Barnes.

“One thing that I feel we bonded over more than anything else — really the foundation of our friendship — was our love for the Lord,” Barnes said. “I always loved talking faith with him and still do to this day.”

Juenger is motivated by gratitude for things it’s easy to take for granted, like walking, in addition to playing a game for a living.

“I am blessed with a gift to play baseball,” Juenger said. “Yes, it’s my job, but there are kids that would love to play baseball and people that would love to play sports.”

A few years ago, Juenger and filmmaker Paul Tremlin collaborated on a documentary series called “The Pursuit,” which discusses the Juengers’ faith and Hayden’s journey to the MLB draft. It’s available on YouTube.

YouTube video

Juenger has a tattoo of three crosses on his forearm and he wears a bracelet with a phrase that he calls the answer to the question of “What Would Jesus Do?”

“The answer is he would love first,” Juenger said.

Buffalo — it’s like St. Louis, or Branson (but with giant waterfalls)

Juenger is fond of his current city.

“It gives me a St. Louis kind of vibe,” Juenger said. “St. Louis is definitely bigger, but there’s a baseball team there, hockey there, so it’s like a bigger town.”

Forrest Barnes, wearing a Missouri State baseball uniform, pitches during a game at Hammons Field
Hayden Juenger remains close to former Missouri State teammate Forrest Barnes, shown pitching for the Bears during the 2020 season. Juenger and Barnes bonded over their Christian faith. (Photo by Mary Ellen Chiles)

He also likes hunting and golfing. The ballclub has a fan that offers Bisons ballplayers free golf at his course in Canada.

Juenger took his parents to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls when they visited for his birthday in 2021.

“It’s a lot like the main street downtown in Branson,” Juenger said. “They make it Tourist Central. You name it: food, arcades, go-karts, everything.”

Only, there are no giant waterfalls in Branson.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty big difference,” he said.

What’s in a name?

In this case, Juenger is pronounced Yinger — rhymes with zinger — but he’s accustomed to creative interpretations.

“I’ve heard everything in the book and I just laugh it off,” Juenger said. “It honestly doesn’t matter to me.”

Juenger was an emotional player in college, quick to pump his fist after a strikeout or defensive play, but he has to be careful as a professional.

“In pro ball, you get fired up and some might say, ‘Oh, you’re showing off’ or ‘You’re showing up the other team.’ You kind of walk a tightrope a little bit.”

Juenger said minor league ball is “more about development and less about wins and losses.” It can be challenging to stay positive while struggling.

“You gotta be careful because pro ball can be a very dark place at times,” Juenger said. “If you’re not pitching well, you can get down on yourself.

He’s found that a little perspective reduces pressure and helps his resiliency.

“It’s our livelihood, but (at) the end of the day, it’s just a game,” Juenger said. “If you can wrap your head around that then you’ll have the ability to bounce back a little bit easier after a rough outing.”

His faith keeps him grounded, too, in the uncertainty of minor league ball.

“Little things don’t get me down,” he said. “My identity is not in baseball. It’s not who I am.”

Mary Ellen Chiles

Mary Ellen Chiles is a freelance photographer and writer based in the Ozarks. She graduated from Missouri State University with a bachelor's in creative writing and a master's in English, Creative Nonfiction Writing. More by Mary Ellen Chiles