Arkansas sophomore pitcher Zach Jackson is not the same body type that arrived from Berryhill, Okla., 18 months ago. He's grown up. He's physically different.
But mentally, he grew up a long time ago. Helping to care for his injured mother during the summer before his senior year in high school likely added maturation and taught proper perspective.
Talking to Jackson for 30 minutes Thursday on media day, you get his maturity. The understanding of what's important comes through after hearing him explain what his mother went through after a scary fall almost four years ago.
Gina and Kevin Jackson were coming back from the state tournament in Shawnee, Okla., after Berryhill lost at the end of Zach's junior year in high school. Zach was on the team bus well behind when his parents came upon a burning wreck on I-40.
“We passed the wreck and I didn't think much about it at first,” he said. “Then, I called my parents. They didn't answer and I got nervous. They still didn't answer about 30 minutes later.”
Then, came a call from parents of a teammate with the knowledge of the accident. His mother had been seriously injured trying to help a drunk driver out of a one-car wreck.
Gina Jackson, running to the wreck in the dark, fell off the road, hitting pavement 35 feet below, breaking her pelvis, both hips, six ribs, both wrists and with serious head injuries. The good news, she's fine now, working through two months in a wheel chair and much rehab.
“She apologizes for everything,” Zach said. “She hates that she put anyone through anything. About the only thing she has now is just her wrists, not much flexibility. But it was pretty scary. She was in the hospital in Oklahoma City for about one month.
“It was bad. When I first saw her in the hospital, she was on a board. She was such a trooper through all of it. But it could make you pretty emotional.”
There was great emotion the next year, back to Shawnee for the state tournament when Berryhill broke through for the championship. It made for a great trip back over that same over pass.
There's no doubt, Zach can get teary eyed just looking into the stands after games to see her mom.
“They are always going to be there for me,” he said. “I'm not as emotional as I was at first. They'll be there. I know that. That summer when she was in rehab and we were taking care of her, I felt bad for going to a travel tournament to pitch, but she wanted me to go. She didn't want anyone to make a big deal of her.”
Kevin Jackson told the Tulsa World about that night. He was busy taking care of the man pulled out of the wreckage, not aware his wife had fallen off the bridge. Someone else mentioned that there was another victim of the wreck on the road below. That's when he realized Gina was missing. When he got to her, all she wanted to do was apologize.
There's some of that in their son. He's still apologetic for not getting it done in the big spot at the end of the season when the Hogs ran out of pitching against Virginia in the NCAA tournament. He lasted three innings in his second start. He had been a solid reliever, the link to closer Jacob Stone. He pitched 42.2 innings, with 22 relief appearances, posting a 2.53 ERA.
Jackson is poised for a breakout year as a sophomore, perhaps in the starting rotation. He excites veteran pitching coach Dave Jorn, and that may not be easy to do after the run of amazing pitching over the past several seasons.
“He's got a lot of bullets,” Jorn said. “There is no question he has the stuff. His change dives like a splitter.”
There's also a blistering fast ball and an electric, sharp breaker to make the change-up better.
“He's got enough stuff to turn over a lineup three times,” Jorn said. “He just has to learn to quit wasting pitches.”
Jackson is learning to command his fast ball for location and strikes. He listens to Jorn's every word, especially when he was told to gain weight when he rolled in as a 175-pound freshman. He now packs 215 pounds on a 6-3 frame. He is the Hogs' most intimidating mound presence.
“I always had the wide shoulders,” he said. “But I was also always just so skinny. I got here, started lifting and I ate everything in sight.
“I didn't have a change-up when I got here. Coach Jorn taught me the circle change and it's helped. I know whatever he tells me, I need to do. I couldn't get anywhere without what he's done with me. I was having a terrible fall my first year before he helped me.”
Jorn tweaked his delivery, trying to slow everything down.
“He just wants to over throw,” Jorn said. “He throws it hard enough. With over throwing comes tension, then you fly open and lose your release point.
“He can get too hyped up. That's what happened against Virginia. It was a big game against a good offense. He almost worked out of that jam.”
To be honest, the umpire squeezed Jackson. He didn't get the call on several border line pitches that let Virginia get some separation in the season ender for the Hogs in a solid 40-25 campaign.
“It was definitely a good feeling to know that the team needed me and wanted me to pitch that game,” Jackson said. “And, as dumb as it sounds, it was a good experience to fail and now to get a chance to come back and help my team this year.”
Senior outfielder Joe Serrano calls the change “really nasty. It's gotten better and better. You can't stay back on it because of the velocity of the other two pitches. He's mature and very good. He's only a sophomore, but we consider him to be like a veteran, just phenomenal.”
Yes, Zach Jackson is mature beyond his years.
Zach Jackson mature and electric
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