Zach Jackson needed a change.
He hadn’t pitched in the major leagues since a brief stint in 2009, and in four consecutive Class AAA seasons, his ERA finished between 5.17 and 6.05.
So, in January, the left-hander changed from a conventional-throwing left-hander to using a drop-down, three-quarters style delivery.
“I was getting older, and as a 29-year-old conventional lefty, I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be,” Jackson said. “Quite frankly I probably would have been out of the game if I didn’t make an adjustment and give it a shot. Either it was going to work or it wasn’t.”
So he threw a couple of bullpens with his new mechanics, and then tryouts were arranged with major league organizations. Even though Jackson had never pitched that way before, Kansas City liked what it saw and signed him to a minor league deal.
He’s been one of the stars of the Omaha bullpen that has helped the Storm Chasers move within one win of a second Class AAA Pacific Coast League title in three seasons — Game 3 of the best-of-five series starts at 6:35 p.m. Friday at Salt Lake.
Jackson didn’t exactly shoot his way back to the major leagues.
The 32nd overall pick of the 2004 draft — he signed with Toronto for a shade over $1 million — Jackson found himself still in Arizona for extended spring training. Extended is just fine for the recent high school picks — like Bubba Starling — or young Latin American players who aren’t quite ready for full-season ball in April.
But Jackson? He turned 30 before leaving extended. He had to have some faith.
Jackson’s quirky new side-winding style was working for him, but Kansas City had few player moves to make at the upper levels of the minors because of a relative lack of injuries.
“Years past, if you’d told me I was going to be 29 years old and in extended for two months when I felt like I was ready to go, I would have said that it would be misery,” Jackson said. “But I just trusted in the plan, trusted in the Big Guy’s plan and not my plan, and before I knew it, it was time to go to Northwest.”
On May 29, Jackson appeared in his first game with Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He proceeded to go 2-1 with 1.38 ERA and 18 saves. He struck out only 18 batters in 39 innings, but he also issued only seven walks and gave up just 32 hits while holding opponents to a .224 batting average.
He got into one late-June road game for Class AAA Omaha, pitching a scoreless inning, before returning to the Texas League until the final weekend of the season — when he pitched another scoreless inning for Omaha.
But Omaha manager Mike Jirschele has since leaned on Jackson heavily in the playoffs — he worked two scoreless innings, striking out three to get the save in Game 2 of the sweep of Oklahoma City, and then pitched three scoreless one-hit innings to get the win in Game 2 against Salt Lake on Wednesday.
So, all together in seven shutout Class AAA innings, Jackson has allowed two hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
“I like it,” Jirschele said of Jackson’s new delivery. “His ball really sinks, and it’s late sink. The hitters don’t take a lot good swings against him. And he throws strikes — he goes right at them.”
The funny thing about Jackson, who has a big-league record of 4-5 with a 5.81 ERA in 105 1⁄3 innings with Milwaukee and Cleveland and has also spent time in the minors in the Blue Jays and Rangers organizations, is that he really hasn’t lost any velocity since dropping down.
He threw in the mid-80s conventionally and he still throws in the mid-80s.
But his pitches have much better movement.
And he’s always tried to throw plenty of strikes.
“Pitchers are so much better when we’re ahead in the count throwing strikes, and we’re not very good — and the hitters are very good — when we’re behind in the count,” Jackson said. “Just try to pound the zone and trust in the movement on the ball and in the defense behind you.”
Jackson and the rest of the Omaha bullpen — pseudo-closer Michael Mariot, Maikel Cleto, Buddy Baumann, Spencer Patton and Clayton Mortensen — have combined to pitch 21 2⁄3 playoff innings while allowing two runs, one earned, for an 0.42 ERA. The only earned run was a homer off Mortensen, who pitched five innings Wednesday in the completion of the game that had been suspended Tuesday night.
“Everybody in this clubhouse has been chipping in together and doing his part,” Jackson said. “Everybody has been picking one another up when they don’t come through. But right now everybody is more than pulling his weight.”
Ultimately, Jackson’s slow rise back through the minors hasn’t yet been met with its ultimate reward. It’s likely he’ll become a minor league free agent again at the end of the season.
“I’m not a young prospect any more,” Jackson said. “My goal isn’t to have a good Double-A season or a good Triple-A season, it’s to get back to the big leagues. I’m just trying to put myself in position to do that.”
But along the way, he’s gotten something memorable out of it.
Omaha has won seven straight games, two must-win games to end the regular season and then five straight in the playoffs. The past four wins have been come-from-behind wins — made possible because of the tremendous work of the bullpen. The past three wins have come on the Chasers’ final at-bat.
“This has been unbelievable,” Jackson said. “It’s such a great group of guys — I’ve never been a part of anything like this before. I’ve never won a championship in my life … and this is the most excitement I’ve had in baseball in a long time, if not ever.”
Colon, Dwyer earn honors as Omaha’s top player, pitcher
Infielder Christian Colon and pitcher Chris Dwyer have been named the Omaha player and pitcher of the year, respectively, by the Kansas City Royals organization.
Colon hit .273 with 12 homers, 58 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. He led the team in RBIs, ranked second in homers and led the Pacific Coast League with 15 sacrifice bunts. The fourth overall pick of the 2010 draft, Colon was the Class AA Northwest Arkansas player of the year last season.
Dwyer, a PCL mid-season all-star, had a strong bounce-back season while going 10-11 with a 3.55 ERA. The left-hander, a fourth-round pick in 2009, ranked sixth in the PCL in ERA, tied for fifth in wins, third in innings pitched (159 2⁄3) and third in opponent batting average (.234).
Also, outfielder Lane Adams, who joined Omaha for the playoffs after splitting the season between high Class A Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, has been named Wilmington’s player of the year.