After another rough year with the bat in 2012, Justin Jackson thought it was time for a position change. So did the Blue Jays. Saturday night was a key point -- and in some ways the very beginning -- in the transition to the mound.
Jackson made his professional pitching debut for Class A Lansing, allowing one run on two hits and striking out one over 2 2/3 innings out of the bullpen in the Lugnuts' 11-6 loss to Beloit. He recorded back-to-back outs to close the fourth inning before allowing a run on two singles and a wild pitch in the fifth. His night finished with a perfect sixth.
Three days earlier, Jackson had fanned one in a scoreless inning during an exhibition game against Michigan State.
"I felt great out there," said the 6-foot-2 right-hander, who mixed in fastballs, sliders and changeups against the Snappers. "It was nice getting my feet wet and facing real live action like that. You don't know what it's going to be like until you're out there, so it's nice to be getting it going."
The outing was months in the making.
Jackson struggled at the plate as a shortstop and center fielder last season between Class A Advanced Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire, batting .220 with a .582 OPS. It was the latest in what had been a disappointing six-year career after the Blue Jays selected him 45th overall in the 2007 Draft. In those half-dozen seasons, he never hit higher than .249 or more than seven homers or driven in more than 47 runs. He also topped 100 strikeouts three times.
Then, a meeting of the minds got the ball rolling.
"It was a joint effort," Jackson said. "My agent was sitting down at a game with one of the assistant GMs, and they were watching a guy who had converted from a position player to a pitcher. They started talking about me and my agent asked him, 'What do you think about Justin doing this?' They said, 'It has to come from him.' So we all sat down and I made that decision that becoming a pitcher would be best."
The move didn't come completely out of left field. The 25-year-old had pitched while attending T.C. Robertson High School in Asheville, N.C., although that hadn't been his primary focus. Also, despite his diminishing production at the plate, Jackson had always been lauded for his strong arm. It was part of the reason he made the move from shortstop to center field.
Because of that, he felt comfortable making another move that could give him a second chance at a productive professional career.
"I didn't want to be sitting there with my grandkids someday and say that I didn't give it my all," Jackson said. "I always knew I had a good arm, so I figured pitching was always something I could do. Where I was at before this year, I was putting up road blocks and had to keep making adjustments with my bat. This will be a new learning experience though."
The process began when he reported early to Spring Training to meet with Toronto's pitching coaches. Following weeks of work at his new position, including time at extended spring training, Jackson was added to the Lugnuts roster on Thursday.
Back in the Midwest League for the first time since 2008 -- when he was making his full-season debut -- the right-hander already is adjusting to some of the differences at his new position: The mystery of when -- or if -- you will be called on a given night. The downtime between appearances. The camaraderie and cohesion of the bullpen atmosphere.
"It's the whole lifestyle," Jackson said. "You have to pay attention to the game more to see what's working against certain hitters and stuff like that, so you'll be ready when it's your turn. You have to figure out how to attack these guys. There's a lot of differences you recognize being on the other side."
Lugnuts designated hitter Chris Hawkins went 4-for-5 with a triple, two RBIs and a run scored. Second baseman Christian Lopes also had four hits, including a double, and scored twice.
John Wooten, Renato Nunez and Matthew Olson homered for Beloit, an A's affiliate.