Former Crawdad Luke Jackson stays the course to the big leagues

Cody Dalton
Sports Editor

At the age of 18, Luke Jackson started his professional baseball journey in Hickory.

Flash forward seven years now, and the 25-year-old right-handed pitcher has persevered through the ups and downs of the minor leagues to earn a spot on the Atlanta Braves’ roster.

Jackson spent two seasons with the Hickory Crawdads from 2011-12, honing his craft after being taken with the 45th pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball (MLB) First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers — a selection the club received after not signing star catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

“I had two years there (in Hickory), so I had a lot of time to get some experience,” Jackson said. “Some of my best friends that I ever played with, met and still stay in touch with are from those years in Hickory. Whether or not the season went the way I wanted it to, I met some great people and had some great life experiences there. I was 18 years old playing there. It was a completely different change going from high school straight to Hickory. All of the staff, fans and everyone made my first year important.”

The transition from competing in high school to the minor leagues was a difficult one for Jackson, who went 5-6 overall with a 5.64 ERA in 19 games during his first season in Hickory.

“I’m going to be 100 percent honest with you. I wasn’t a good pitcher,” Jackson said. “(Hickory pitching coach) Storm Davis had his work cut out for him when I was there. I still love him to death and keep in touch with him. I was pretty terrible. I was just kind of throwing it, and I had no idea where the ball was going. I’ve figured out a little bit since then.”

Despite his struggles, Jackson tried to keep his sense of humor. He, along with a handful of his fellow Hickory relief pitchers, formed the @CrawdadsBullpen Twitter account to showcase their many antics on and off the field, which included swimming in a flooded dugout at L.P. Frans Stadium and acting like trained military snipers during pre-game warm ups.

Jackson still keeps in touch with all of the members of that Crawdads’ bullpen, including Joe Van Meter, Ben Henry, Ben Rowen, Will Lamb, Jorge Marban, Colby Killian and Jimmy Reyes — texting each other through a “CBGB” group message.
“We were the originators,” Jackson said of the Crawdads’ Bullpen. “We kind of kept things fun, and we had some good experiences there.”

Despite his early-career struggles, Jackson received the backing of Crawdads manager Bill Richardson and his staff, and the support helped Jackson slowly started to find his groove as a professional pitcher during his second minor league season in Hickory.

“Bill as my manager was amazing,” Jackson said. “I love Bill to death. Jason Hart, our hitting coach, was an amazing dude, too. All of those guys poured into me and kept telling me things would get better if I kept putting the work in. I did, and it got me here. Those guys pushed me and built a foundation for me to get here.

“I learned a lot about failure in Hickory,” he added. “I had a lot of it there. I struggled a lot, but you’re going to struggle in baseball. When you figure that out, your career starts to turn for the better. I didn’t struggle in high school. It was kind of a cake walk. When I came right up to Hickory, I thought I was going to be in the big leagues by the next year. That’s what you tell yourself. When you have a 7.50 ERA after your first four starts, maybe you have to work on something.”

Jackson left Hickory following the 2012 season, and he immediately found more success.

Splitting time between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco, Jackson earned Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors, and he was named a Carolina League All-Star with his 9-4 record and 2.41 ERA that season.

“I felt like I was pitching instead of throwing,” Jackson said of the 2013 season. “I could throw a change up behind in the count. I knew a fastball down and away at 94 (miles per hour) was better than as hard as I could throw at 96 somewhere in the strike zone. Once I figured that out, my career kind of took a turn for the better.”

Jackson worked his way up to the Triple-A Round Rock Express by 2014, but he found himself trying too hard.

“I wanted to be in the big leagues,” he said. “I just kind of took a step backwards. I had to get my mental focus and approach back.”

After switching from a starting role to the bullpen in Triple-A, Jackson would earn the call of a lifetime on Sept. 4, 2015 — receiving a promotion to the Texas Rangers.

In New Orleans at the time for a scheduled minor league series, Jackson gave his family in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. an important wake up call at one o’clock in the morning to let them know of his call up.

“That was really cool and a pretty surreal moment,” he said of the phone call to his parents Edward and Kim. “I don’t think I slept that whole night.”

Joining the Texas Rangers on the road during a late-season series with the Anaheim Angels, Jackson pitched 0.2 innings in the game, allowing two earned runs and two hits in his Major League debut.

Following an up-and-down 2016 season in which he spent time with the Texas Rangers, Round Rock Express and the disabled list, Jackson was traded to the Atlanta Braves on Dec. 8, 2016 for right-handed pitchers Tyrell Jenkins and Brady Feigl.

Jackson was at home when he received the news of being acquired by Atlanta.

“I would hear every offseason that I was going to be traded. My agent always said that,” Jackson said. “I was sitting at my parent’s house where I stay in the offseason, and I get a phone call. It’s (Texas Rangers General Manager) Jon Daniels. We had a great conversation. I love Jon Daniels to death. He’s a great guy. He tells me that I was traded, wishes me the best of luck and says that if I need anything to let him know. I was like ‘wow, this is actually happening. I just got traded.’

“Right after, Coppy [Atlanta Braves General Manager John Coppolella] called me,” Jackson added. “I talked to Coppolella for a while. He told me he was happy to have me and asked me if I was ready for the opportunity. I was ready to get going.”

Switching organizations wasn’t something Jackson had an issue with.

“It was like changing high schools. It was like a first day at a new school,” he said. “(The Braves) have unbelievable guys here in the clubhouse. There’s nothing I can complain about. All of the coaching staff, the pitching staff, the players — from Triple-A to the big leagues — have been great. Reid Cornelius was my Triple-A pitching coach at the beginning of the year. He was amazing. I couldn’t ask for a better guy there. (Atlanta Braves pitching coach) Chuck (Hernandez) has been awesome. (Atlanta Braves bullpen coach) Marty (Reed) and everyone on the pitching side have been great.

“I loved Texas. I loved every bit of it,” he added. “I met some good people there and had some best friends there. I can’t thank them enough for the seven years I was with them and for drafting me. Now, I have the opportunity where I am at with the Braves.”

After participating in Braves’ Spring Training in March, Jackson was sent back down to the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves to start of the 2017 season. His stint in the minor leagues would be short-lived, though, and he earned his third Major League call up and first from Atlanta on April 17.

More than a month later on May 23, Jackson reached another important milestone, earning his first career victory in a 6-5 win by the Braves against the Pittsburgh Pirates at SunTrust Park.

“It was one pitch. It was weird,” Jackson said of the game in which he earned his first MLB win. “I came in, threw one pitch and got a double play, and the inning was over. We ended up walking it off. Someone said ‘hey Jackson, way to snake a win.’ It was pretty funny.”

Since that game, Jackson earned a second career victory — a 2-0 win by Atlanta on the road against San Francisco on June 21.

“I’ve got two (wins) now,” he said. “If they pile on, they pile on. If not, I just need to keep pitching, keep getting outs and do whatever it takes.”

Only in his third Major League season, Jackson has relied on the advice of several of Atlanta’s veteran pitchers, including Jim Johnson and Jason Motte.

“We have a huge mix of super veteran and young pitchers,” Jackson said of the Braves’ bullpen. “Jim Johnson is at the helm. We’ve got Jason Motte, who I call ‘dad’ and ‘Father Time.’ He’s my locker mate. I love him. He’s a great guy. All of those guys have been awesome. They’ve given me advice to non-advice to being just good friends. I think that’s the best part about the bullpen. We just talk like it’s life down there. Baseball comes up every now and again. During the game, we talk about how we pitch guys. Everyone’s always talking, but we try to get locked in.”

Despite losing star first baseman Freddie Freeman earlier this year to a non-displaced left wrist fracture, Jackson said this group of Braves baseball players have held steady.

“Everyone has kind of stuck to their role,” he said. “We are all out here trying to win baseball games. We put our best foot out there every day and have fun doing it. I think that’s helping out. I never played with these guys before this year, but seeing them this year — it’s a bunch of special guys on the field and guys that want to win.”
Jackson is in the final year of his contract with Atlanta, and as for his career moving forward, he is taking a “day in and day out” approach.

“I’ll see what happens tomorrow,” he said. “I try to get outs and know my role for the day. That’s what I’ll stick with.”

With the Crawdads celebrating their 25th anniversary this season, Jackson is hoping to eventually become a notable alumni that fans of the Hickory ball club will remember for years to come.

“They have probably seen some amazing players come out of there in 25 years,” Jackson said of the ‘Dads. “The organization keeps producing great people and great players. They are doing something right over there. I can’t thank them enough for having them be my start.”