Just about every starting pitcher with any kind of competitive nature (which means most all of them) will lobby to stay in a game when the coach comes to pull them. It’s their nature to want to finish what they start or, at least, work their way out of trouble get through the inning.
But few are more intensely resistant than Zach Jackson, the senior right-hander for the Bryant High School Hornets and the Bryant Black Sox American Legion team.
Sox manager Darren Hurt says, only half kiddingly, “We’ll get a bungy rope next year and we’ll just pull him off the mound.”
It’s that kind of determination and competitiveness that made Jackson a conference starter for the Hornets as a sophomore; that made him a key part of an American Legion State championship team at two levels in 2013 as well as a high school State championship team in 2014 including a shutout in the State semifinals. And it’s what enabled him to overcome arm surgery (known commonly as Tommy John) at the end of the 2014 summer season, to pitch in 2015 for another Legion State champion.
Of course, it helps to have good stuff too and the combination made Jackson a Divison I college prospect, the No. 5 prospect in the state of Arkansas and ranked among the top 300 senior ballplayers in the nation for 2016 according to Perfect Game.
And, on Thursday, Jackson, nicknamed “Panda”, made it official as he signed a National letter of intent to continue his education and baseball career at the University of Arkansas, starting in the fall of 2016. The dual signing ceremony with senior teammate Evan Lee was held at the multi-purpose room at Bryant High School.
“This is a dream come true,” said Jackson, the son of Cindy and Danny Jackson. “I’ve wanted to be a Razorback ever since I was growing up watching the games at Dickey-Stephens and also at Baum. Then, getting that phone call saying, ‘Hey, man, we want you to come up and visit.’ It was like, ‘There’s no way this is true. Razorbacks? They want me to come visit?’
“So I went up there with Evan,” he continued. “It was an awesome experience. Evan said, ‘Dude, I promise you’re going to want to be a Razorback as soon as you go up there.’ I said, ‘I hope so.’ I went up and it was one of the greatest visits I’ve been on. Evan was like, ‘C’mon, be a Razorback.’ I was like, ‘I want to be a Razorback, man.’”
The duo will join a pitching staff that already includes former Hornets teammate Blaine Knight, a freshman on the team this year.
“I went to visit Oklahoma and they had a great program and a great campus,” Jackson related. “Their campus was beautiful. I knew I wanted to go to Arkansas no matter what. I wanted to visit other schools, just to make sure. When I went to visit Oklahoma, it was impressive too. Arkansas was impressive. Then I went to Arkansas State to visit.
“Arkansas’ baseball program and their campus, just everything, topped it all,” he continued. “Plus, being with my teammate (Lee) for four more years. I couldn’t top that. Also, with Blaine up there, he’s going to help Evan and me out tremendously next year.”
Pitching for the Hornets and the Black Sox since 2003, Jackson has accumulated a 32-2 mark on the mound with a composite earned run average of 1.29. He’s recorded 212 strikeouts in 211.2 innings.
Both he and Lee played for the Bryant High School team that won the 2014 Class 7A State championship. The Hornets were conference champions and State semifinalists in 2013, then conference runners-up and State quarterfinalists in 2015. Over the three seasons, the Hornets went 88-11 combined.
Jackson was all-conference and all-State tournament as a sophomore in 2013 for Bryant High School.
The duo also played for Senior American Legion teams that compiled a record of 116-22 and won three consecutive State titles including a runner-up finish at the 2014 MidSouth Regional and a final four finish in 2015. Also, they contributed to Junior American Legion State championship teams that went 70-9 in 2013 and 2014 including a Regional Tournament title in 2013.
“They’re getting a blue-collar kid,” said Hornets head coach Kirk Bock. “He ain’t afraid of any work whatsoever and he will do any type of job necessary. I think he has a chance to compete for a spot as a freshman.
“That’s the good thing about Arkansas,” he noted. “They don’t bring you in to sit you for a year. They bring you in to throw right now because, if they do their job, everybody goes out at the end of three years anyhow.”
“He’s a kid that’s going to compete his tail off,” said Hurt. “He wants to win. His teammates and winning mean more to him — he doesn’t want to let anybody down. That’s just the way he is. He’s out there and he’s fighting for everybody but himself. He’s a bulldog.”
“Coming off surgery like he did and really, in the big scheme of things, he’s about six to eight months ahead of schedule, which is unheard of,” Bock noted.
“He’s got a lot of upside,” he added. “He’s a body-mass guy. He’s able to get what he’s got through his body mass. Once he becomes a little better athlete on top of that, the sky’s the limit for him.
“Even though he doesn’t have the athleticism that say Evan has, he’s got the dad-gum drive and determination and the work ethic,” Bock said. “That’s what put him where he’s at. They’re both very competitive. Evan kind of wears his out on his sleeve a little bit. Zach, you never know. Zach is that guy that’s going to quietly walk in there, cut your throat and get out before you ever know what hit you. That’s the kind of guys you win with.”
Jackson, who plans to major in Sports Management, recounted his progress, saying, “I came up for my freshman year and everybody said, ‘Oh, Coach Bock, he’s intimidating. He’s scary.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.’ My first practice, my freshman year, I’m scared to death. It was like, ‘Gosh, what do I want to do?’
“But I actually proved to myself my freshman year that I could pitch varsity,” he continued. “I got into a varsity game, one of the State Tournament games. I did pretty good until my turn at bat. Of course, I’m a pitcher only but, you know? I could’ve laid a bunt down but (Coach Bock) wouldn’t let me. He took me out.
“Then my sophomore year, that’s when I got most of my playing time as a starter,” Jackson added. “He put me in, one of my first starts, and I had one of the best games of my life. I just knew I was going to be a big part of the program for the team. I threw the rest of the year.”
Then came a turning point for the right-hander, a start in a crucial conference game against the rival Conway Wampus Cats on the road.
“I walked bases loaded in the first inning,” he recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the biggest game of my life and I’m walking the bases loaded. There’s no way I’m ever pitching again.’ But I ended up getting out of the inning without them scoring. I couldn’t have been more happy about that.
“That was a deal maker when I proved myself, that I could pitch at the next level because not many people walk the bases loaded with no outs and get out of it,” Jackson added. “I’m not trying to brag or anything but I think that’s impressive, especially against them. They had three or four of the top hitters in the state. That was huge for me.”
“His best pitch is his fastball, with movement,” Bock said. “Zach comes back with a cutter. He’s got a fastball that’s sinking in on your hands as a righty then he’s got a cutter running away. Those are quality pitches. And we don’t look in terms of striking people out. We look in terms of getting people out. When he’s throwing those two things, he’s going to get a lot of people out.
“That cutter and the fastball — when you can run it in on them and then throw a pitch that looks the same that goes the other way, it’s tough to handle,” Hurt concurred.
The cutter actually got Jackson in trouble. He wasn’t throwing it correctly.
“I blew my arm out as a sophomore in the summertime,” he related. “I got around the cutter and it blew my arm out. I came back and my first pitch in the bullpen was that cutter. I had to make sure I still had it. It’s still there and that’s my go-to pitch. I’m not getting around it now. I’m actually getting on top of it and I’ve got more movement than I had.”
That’s not good news for the high school and Legion hitters in the state and beyond when the 2016 season starts in late February. Along with Jackson, Lee and Harding University signee Alex Shurtleff, Bryant pitching could be dominant, perhaps enough to keep the Hornets’ pattern of State championships in even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014) going.
“Those are three quality arms and that really puts a little pressure on our defense,” Bock mentioned. “You’ve got to get it done for them because all three of them are going to give you a quality start every time they walk out there.”