Before his appearance at Rochester on May 21, Zach Jackson yearned for his identity in Triple-A. That night at Frontier Field, everything finally clicked for the Buffalo Bisons' reliever.
With Buffalo leading 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth, Jackson held down the fort. In two innings of work, Jackson retired the side in order- striking out two of his first three batters in the process - and secured his second win of the season as part of Buffalo's 5-0 victory.
"I had a good outing after a pretty rough start (to the season)," Jackson said. "It kind of made things easier, seeing that I could get guys out at this level. My confidence turned a little bit and my pitches started to get a little better."
Since then, Jackson has emerged as one of the most reliable arms in the Bisons bullpen, yielding just three total runs (two earned) on 12 hits and striking out 27 batters over his last 27.1 innings. Along with a team-high six wins, the 24-year-old righthander saw his ERA drop from a 5.68 to an impressive 2.84 over the past month.
Despite his individual success, Jackson credited the Bisons' recent surge - winners in 22 of their last 31 games - as a result of a complete team effort.
"Our pitching and our hitting are starting to coincide with each other," Jackson said. "When those start running together, those make you a hard team to beat."
Bisons manager Bobby Meacham said Jackson has thrown "good stuff" since they first met at spring training earlier this year. Yet, the young reliever dealt with a problem other young athletes face - finding his confidence.
"I think what's happened to Zach is when he figured out how to throw the ball over the plate and get ahead early in the count, you don't have to worry about being perfect," Meacham, the Herd's third-year manager, said. "You can just throw strikes and get them out even when they know it's coming and just throw it over the plate and get outs quickly."
The son of Kevin and Gina Jackson, and brother to Chelsea, young Zach was raised in Tulsa, OK, a city that has produced success stories such as MLB Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox and current Atlanta Braves pitcher Dallas Keuchel, among others. Growing up and playing outside daily, being involved in sports in some capacity was what he wanted to do for a living. It was just a matter of figuring out the where and how.
The how was the toughest decision for him. Not only was he a top pitcher for the Berryhill High School baseball team, Jackson was also the school's star quarterback.
But baseball, he learned, was his true calling.
"It was between that and football my whole life," he said. "Those were my two loves and I just ended up being better at baseball."
On the mound for the Chiefs, Jackson finished his four-year career - primarily as a starter - with a 39-3 record, a 1.08 ERA and 437 strikeouts, earning second-team All-American honors from Baseball America as a senior in the spring of 2013.
Not only meticulous on the field, Jackson excelled in the classroom, too, and was named the class valedictorian with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
May 11, 2013 still stands out as his favorite moment of high school - one plucked directly from a Hollywood ending.
After giving his valedictory speech that morning at Oral Roberts University, Jackson and his teammates took a 90-minute bus ride to Shawnee and faced Plainview High School in the Oklahoma Class 4A title. Coming up short in 2010 and 2012, the third time was truly the charm for these Chiefs.
Behind Jackson's 4-hit, 10 strikeout performance, the Chiefs won, 4-1, for what was then their first state title in six years.
But as far as which event was more challenging - the speech or the game - Jackson said he felt about the same way in the moment.
"I'm not really good at getting up in front of people and talking but, at the same time, I knew that the state championship was something that I had been looking forward to for a long time," Jackson said. "I didn't end up winning a state championship in football and I wanted to do that in baseball before I left, so that day - just cumulatively - was definitely the best day of my high school career."
While he received some offers to immediately sign with a professional team, Jackson decided to enroll at the University of Arkansas instead, which, he said, worked out better for him in the long run. Not only was he pursuing a college degree while playing for the Razorbacks, Jackson benefited from the time he had to mature.
"I don't think I was quite mature enough," Jackson said. "I grew up in a very small town in Oklahoma. So, the different dynamic that pro ball has definitely would've been harder to adjust to. Going to college and getting my maturity level up to where I needed it to be was big for me. It was never something that I really regretted."
After being primarily used as a reliever his freshman year with the Razorbacks in 2014, Jackson returned to his starting role as a sophomore. While having experience in both situations, Jackson said he thrives coming onto the mound as either the "middle man" or the closer.
"Out of the pen, it's a lot of adrenaline just to come in there for a couple of innings and just throw your hardest and do what you can," Jackson said. "That's definitely where I'm most comfortable."
After three successful years with the Razorbacks competing in the Southeastern Conference, Jackson was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Since then, he has ascended through the organization. Last summer, Jackson dominated with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Double-A) where he logged career highs in innings pitched (62.0) and strikeouts (75).
Describing number 38's delivery as "unique," Bisons pitching coach Doug Mathis said the two discussed recently about whatever type of pitcher he wants to be, he has to stick with it. So far, Mathis added, it has worked well.
"He doesn't give up a lot of hard contact and the more he's in good counts, the more he's going to strike more guys out," the first-year coach said. "And that's been a focus of his - just to be who he is. It doesn't matter what it looks like. Just be in the strike zone as much as you can be and that's really how he's turned the corner… When he's good, he's like anybody that's aggressive and has played this game for a long time and has had success."
As the Herd head into the second half of the season just two games behind the Charlotte Knights for the final Wild Card spot in the International League standings, Jackson is determined to deal with whatever else he faces the rest of this summer - one strike at a time.
"That's the main thing for me - to just make sure to keep attacking hitters and pitch how I can and let the rest take care of itself," Jackson said.
Back home in Tulsa, the only local baseball team Jackson watched as a teenager was the Tulsa Drillers, still the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers today.
Now that he's striving in Triple-A, Jackson is proof that hard work does eventually pay off - a message he wants to pass on to the next group of baseball players and potential future Bisons.
"I would just say it's definitely possible for anybody," Jackson said. "It's just one of those where if you set your mind to it and if you want to do this - whether it be baseball or something else - it's definitely possible if you want to put the work in."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.