LAKELAND, Fla. - Last year at this time, Edwin Jackson was home in Arizona, an unemployed pitcher throwing bullpen sessions and trying to stay ready in case someone in need of a veteran right-hander called with a job offer. After 15 major league seasons, little fazes Jackson, who’s on his third tour of duty with the Nationals and hopeful of a role with what he calls a “special team.”
Today that role was emergency starter, a move necessitated when righty A.J. Cole came down with the stomach bug that’s been working its way through the Nationals clubhouse. Jackson went three innings in a 5-4 win over the Tigers, breezing uneventfully through the first two before needing to call on all of his veteran savvy to escape trouble and limit damage in the fourth, when he allowed a run.
“I made it hard on myself in the third inning,” said Jackson, who allowed three hits, walked two and struck out two on the day. “Smooth sailing along, pounding the strike zone, then walks and whatnot. I can definitely do a better job on that.”
Once a power pitcher who now gets by on more guile than stuff, Jackson knows what he has to do to be successful.
“Right now, my biggest thing is making them put the ball in play. ... Walks have been down and make people put it in play,” he said. “Be aggressive around the strike zone and stay in pitcher’s counts and stay aggressive around the plate and let the defense work. I’ll take my chances.”
Perhaps it’s a glass-half-full viewpoint from a pitcher who’s a little long in the tooth at 34, but Jackson was quick to point out that he minimized the damage and didn’t let the inning get away from him.
“Just to be able to challenge yourself and make pitches in those situations,” he said. “Those are definitely going to be the game-changers once the season starts. If I was starting and I had one bad inning - and that would be my bad inning with bases loaded and give up one run - I’ll take that every day.”
Jackson got the benefit of some nice defense in the third. A relay from center fielder Brian Goodwin to shortstop Reid Brignac to catcher Pedro Severino cut down Edwin Espinal trying to score from first on a double by JaCoby Jones. And the lone run he allowed came when second baseman Wilmer Difo couldn’t quite turn an inning-ending double play, allowing a run to cross on a fielder’s choice.
“When you have days like that where the defense is working and everybody is making great plays, I’m excited on the mound,” Jackson said.
Despite maintaining his 3.00 ERA, Jackson probably didn’t make much headway in his attempt to force his way onto the 25-man roster. Cole is still targeted to be the fifth starter, and there probably isn’t room for Jackson as a long man out of the bullpen.
Would he go to Triple-A, work regularly and be ready in case the Nats needed him? He did that last year, opting out of his minor league deal with the Orioles after a couple of forgettable outings as a reliever, signing a minor league deal with the Nats and making 13 starts for the major league club in the second half.
“I did it twice last year with two different organizations,” Jackson said. “I was still able to come out and help the team when I needed it. It’s not necessarily the ideal situation for me, but if that’s what happens, I guess I have to deal with that when it comes.”
Jackson and the Nationals were equally excited about contributions from some of the younger players on the roster. Difo drove in the Nats’ first run in the fifth inning and outfield prospect Juan Soto had a pair of RBIs later on a double and a bases-loaded walk. Seventeen-year-old Luis Garcia got in the game and impressed manager Dave Martinez with a couple of heady at-bats.
“These kids, they’re very impressive,” Martinez said. “I love to watch them play the game. Garcia had some good at-bats today. That’s a testament to the minor leagues and what they’re doing. They’ve got some good players.”
Martinez stretched out reliever Trevor Gott to two innings today, and said the move was planned to see how the righty would fare in a multiple-inning outing. Gott allowed a hit and fanned two.
“We want to see what he can do, going back out the second inning,” Martinez said. “The first inning he had, what, 11 pitches? We wanted to give him 25 and see what he could do.”
The Nationals made three outs on the base paths today, continuing their penchant for aggressive play that yields little in the way of positive results. Moisés Sierra was thrown out trying to steal second after singling in the second, Goodwin was picked off first by catcher John Hicks after walking in the third and Andrew Stevenson was picked off by reliever Ryan Carpenter after an infield single in the fourth.
As he has all spring, Martinez didn’t seem particularly upset at the decisions by his baserunners, labeling them more aggressive plays that didn’t go well rather than outright gaffes.
“For me, I want to see these guys and see what we can do,” he said. “Obviously, during the season, we’d be a little more cautious. But I want them to feel like they can go whenever they want right now and get the jitters and the bugs out. See what we got.”
Still, Martinez plans to address the matter before tomorrow night’s game against the Mets in West Palm Beach.
“We’ll talk about what happened and talk about situations and teach them. That’s why we’re here. We’ll sit down with everybody and let them know what happened and why it happened, and let them know situations.”