Hard-throwing Jackson develops into Gators’ ace

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2003

[4/18/03]The skinny young man with the magic arm doesn’t look so tough, with his “aw, shucks” smile and his 160-pound frame.

It’s not until he walks to the mound, picks up a ball, and throws his first few pitches that one starts to see why James Jackson’s teammates feel confident when he’s out there.

In the first inning, he’s at 85 mph on the radar gun. Then 87. Then 89. Then 90. All the way up to 93. Like a sports car accelerating on the highway, the 16-year-old junior left-hander seems to get better and faster with every pitch, occasionally mixing in a slow curve to change gears.

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By the time he’s done, most of Vicksburg High’s opponents this season have been left wondering what hit them.

“They’re amazed,” Jackson said with a laugh, telling of opponents’ reactions to his velocity. “They don’t really think I can do it until I get out there and do it, and then they’re shocked. That’s how I’ve pitched so good this year.”

Jackson has developed into Vicksburg’s top pitcher as the team goes after a Class 5A state championship. Like Jackson himself, his stats are modest. He is only 4-2, with 51 strikeouts, 35 walks, and a 4.05 ERA in 36-1/3 innings. The numbers took a hit, though, with a dreadful three-inning performance against Clinton in which he gave up nine runs.

It’s Jackson’s presence and ability that give the Gators an edge, though. Knowing there is a pitcher with the potential to dominate hitters on any given night.

“We know he can come out there and pump the zone at 90-plus, and if he does that we know we’re not going to have to do too much,” Vicksburg third baseman Matt Middleton said. “We haven’t faced one guy that’s thrown 90, and to have somebody like that on our team … that’s a huge advantage.”

Jackson’s talent has always been obvious, but he struggled to harness it early in his high school career.

“The first time I saw James throw was when he was 13 years old, and what a gem. I was salivating, getting ready to get this kid as a ninth-grader,” Vicksburg coach Jamie Creel said.

Jackson split his time between basketball and baseball as a freshman and sophomore, and couldn’t get in shape in time to be effective before the end of the season.

This year, he is focusing solely on baseball and has reaped the rewards.

“It was lacking practice, not throwing every day. That’s all,” Jackson said. “I felt we had a good chance of winning this year, and I didn’t think basketball would help me win in baseball this year, so I focused on baseball.”

He broke the 90 mph barrier for the first time on March 5 in a 6-5 win over Warren Central. In that game, Jackson struck out eight in 4 2/3 innings and served notice that he had arrived.

“He’s always had good stuff, and one day he’d be there and one day he wouldn’t,” Vicksburg shortstop Justin Henry said. “That game (against WC), he just got in a zone and he’s been in it ever since.”

As good as Jackson was that night, the best was yet to come. In a 7-2 win over then-No. 3 Petal, Jackson dominated. He threw 100 pitches, 96 of them fastballs, and allowed three hits in five innings.

“If you tell somebody a fastball is coming, eventually they’re going to hit it. But for five innings, he had his way with them,” Creel said.

Then, in a 13-1 win in a rematch with Warren Central on March 21, Jackson put everything together. Mixing a devastating breaking ball with a fastball that topped out at 92 mph, he held the Vikings to two hits and one unearned run in six innings.

He walked only one and struck out nine in leading the Gators to their most lopsided win over their archrival in years.

“The Warren Central game, I was at my prime. I was ready. I was prepared,” Jackson said.

As the Gators head into the playoffs, they’re hoping for more performances like that from Jackson. He and fellow left-hander Justin Boler a curveball specialist whose fastball is 15-20 mph slower than Jackson’s provide a solid 1-2 punch for the Gators.

Boler allowed only seven hits and three runs as the Gators beat Starkville 23-3 in game one of their first-round series on Thursday. Tonight, the Yellowjackets will get a look at the harder-throwing Jackson.

“That’s good, because they’re looking at me throwing 90, and (Boler) throws that changeup and curve. Then I come back in with my fastball, and it throws people off,” Jackson said.

While Boler provides a nice change of pace for the Gators in a best-of-three series, and is a solid No. 2 pitcher on a staff that has six pitchers with at least two decisions, there’s little doubt who the ace is.

“We haven’t had an ace here, somebody that teams feared, since Robby (Goodson),” Henry said, referring to former VHS star and current Mississippi State reliever Robby Goodson. “Now, (Jackson) goes out and teams know they might not get a hit the whole game.”

If you ask Creel, though, Jackson is more than just an ace.

“He’s probably the ace, king, queen, and jack,” Creel said.