Rutledge was the Nats’ first-round pick in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft after playing for head coach Tom Arrington at San Jacinto College North.
The big right-hander was a part of a trio of starters that led the Gators to the top of their division in 2019, alongside Nats 2020 fifth-round pick Mitchell Parker and 2020 A’s fourth-round draft selection Dane Acker. They combined to go 25-2 with six complete games, 342 strikeouts and a 1.57 ERA. Rutledge led the team with 134 strikeouts.
“It was devastating,” Arrington said of Rutledge’s season. “Fortunately, when you have a guy like that, the word spreads pretty quick. People looked forward to hitting off of him, surprisingly. They were like, ‘I want my shot at Jackson! I want to see what I can do against a big league type arm within our conference.’ He produced. He came in with all that pressure and all that hype.”
Arrington watched as Rutledge demonstrated the ability to throw four different pitches effectively for San Jacinto, and if he got into hot water, quickly found a way to limit the damage and get out of the inning.
“I think back (and) what really impressed me about him was here he is with the power fastball, power slider, hard breaking ball, plus changeup,” Arrington said. “He’s got all the makeups. But when he got behind in the count, he would step off, take that extra breath, regroup and then attack the zone again. He knew that performance was based on a strike ratio, throwing strikes and attacking hitters. It wasn’t just about throwing hard and (more about) being who he was. He stepped off, he regrouped. He wanted to win the moment - each moment.”
The Gators were not eligible for postseason play in 2019, and they knew about their probation before the season began. Arrington brought all of his players in and told them the school would let them out of their commitment if they wanted to go to other schools since they would not be allowed to play in the JUCO World Series, even if they qualified. But Arrington said Rutledge wasn’t going anywhere.
“It was disappointing,” Arrington said of the probation. “Late November, we found out we were going to be held under probation with the NJCAA. So at that point, we got together and we wanted to let our players become aware of it and support what they wanted to do. If they wanted to leave, we were going to provide that option for them because we were not going to be allowed to play in the postseason. We had called a couple of sophomores and then one of our earliest calls was to Jackson Rutledge. He was going to be one of our guys.”
“Jackson said, ‘Look, I came here to get better. I came here to be drafted. I came here to go to school and I am going to stay with that commitment.’ Even though we weren’t going to be able to play on any playoffs at that point. Once that happened, it was like a trickle-down effect. Everybody kind of jumped on board and we had 100 percent commitment from every player that was signed with us to play that season.”
So the coaching staff put together the mindset of staying with the basics, making sure these guys got better so they could move on to Division I after leaving San Jacinto.
“We took the approach of more of a developmental approach than normal rather than a postseason play type of situation,” Arrington said. “We were more concerned with the players getting better and the players developing as individuals within their skills.”
Arrington did not have that much of a chance last summer to check in on Rutledge, but certainly was proud of how the 6-foot-8, 250-lb. hurler was progressing in the Nats organization.
“He’s doing well,” Arrington said. “I followed him through some statistical data and reports on how he was doing and talking with friends. There wasn’t much one-on-one with him and I. I tend to leave them off to what they are pursuing. Checking in on them as a person is more important to me.”
From what Arrington saw of Rutledge, he knew the kid was good enough to be a pro baseball player and more than deserved the No. 17 slot the Nats were able to grab him at. Then Rutledge delivered, going 2-0 with a 3.13 ERA in those 10 starts in 2019, striking out 39 in 37 1/3 innings of work. Hitters managed only a .169 batting average against him.
“Jackson is extremely mature for his age,” Arrington said. “He knows what he wants. He’s a complete ballplayer. He is a justifiable first-round pick because he works hard at his craft. He is very good at what he does. He has the right attitude. He has a selfless attitude. He helps those others around him and he’s a giver. He is the complete package.”