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Photo Credit: (Allasyn Lieneck/Dunedin Blue Jays)

A 100-mph story about an under-the-radar arm in the Blue Jays system

The people of Manchester are downtown enjoying bar snacks and hops, blowing some steam on another Friday night. The old red-brick buildings on Elm St. add to the character of this peaceful small town. No big city lights. No big city sounds.

Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is empty on another cold evening, as the Hartford Yard Goats take on the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. It’s quiet around the park – calm like the Merrimack River off in the distance. Not as busy as the restaurants only a few miles away.

Patrick Murphy takes the baseball as the rest of the city sip the week’s end. He dominates the first two innings of the game. The Yard Goats looked like they were up against a big league pitcher, unable to understand what they were seeing coming at them.

Murphy commands his fastball. He throws his filthy curveball. He mixes in his changeup. It looks like manager Mike Mordecai is going to have another strong start from his ace. However, things weren’t about to remain as calm as the Merrimack River for Murphy.

The 23-year-old Blue Jays prospect walked out to the mound in the third inning. And the Hartford hitters were ready to set foot in the batter’s box again. This time it was going to be different. There wasn’t a lot of noise being made off of any of Hartford’s bats and that was about to change.

Manny Melendez was hit by a pitch and then scored on an error to make it 1-0. The only noise that could be heard in the stadium came from his teammates cheering in the dugout. Patrick Murphy was not going to be perfect tonight, even though it looked like that was the picture he was about to paint.

In the next inning, Alan Trejo singled and Willie Abreu tore the laces off the baseball sending it down the left field line for a double. More noise from the Hartford players. Another run scores. Patrick Murphy was human on this night. He allowed three hits in the top of the fifth and the Yard Goats extended their lead to 4-0.

Murphy’s night was over. He left the game with eight strikeouts and zero walks. And that just wasn’t good enough. Mordecai was going to have to look to his bullpen for help. His bullpen, who at that time, hadn’t allowed a run in 20 innings.

In the ‘pen Jackson McClelland is trying his best to keep it pretty loose. He stays focused though because he knows that there is a good chance that his skipper is going to call on him deep in the game. As Murphy begins to struggle, McClelland’s mind starts to focus on who he’s going to face if he gets the call. He starts to think about what the situation is going to be. He wonders if he will come into the game with Yard Goats on the corners. He starts to imagine different scenarios, but he quietly reminds himself to stay cool. And to stay calm.

Mordecai makes the call. Jackson gets the ball. He comes into relief and pitches two scoreless innings. He records six outs and only throws 15 pitches – 10 of them for strikes. And the strong hurler, who has hit 101 mph on the radar gun, tosses a 2-0 changeup that dances before Fernandez’s eyes. Unfortunately, his fastball and changeup weren’t enough, as the ‘Cats lost 4-3 and their record fell to 13-14.

***

Jackson studied sports medicine at Pepperdine University, which is a subject that he is passionate about. He always saw himself working in this field, but he has decided to put his education on hold for the rare baseball opportunity that he has today. However, it wasn’t an easy road for this young man to get to the point where he feels confident enough to throw a 2-0 changeup.

A week before the start of his junior season with Pepperdine, he was running a live defensive drill and he was on the mound when he was hit with a line drive. A horrific moment on the field that was terrifying for his coaches, teammates, family, and friends. Thankfully Jackson overcame that concussion and pitched that year.

He recorded a 2.93 ERA in 95 innings and his fastball touched 97. He had 71 strikeouts in those 15 starts, as well. That summer, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the draft with their 15th pick, 452nd overall. He was about to leave Pepperdine and become a professional baseball player. He was about to leave studying sports medicine behind. He was about to start his baseball journey.

Unfortunately for Jackson, that concussion marked the beginning of more tough luck. He joined the Vancouver Canadians that summer and only threw 5.1 innings in three games for a total of 41 pitches. 24 of those were strikes and 17 of them were balls. The Northwest League was hitting him and something wasn’t physically right. He was diagnosed with a torn labrum.

Jackson never had any self-pity though. And there was no time to wallow. He was going to do whatever it took to toe the slab again. Nikki Huffman and Jose Ministral were responsible for his rehab program and worked closely with Jackson. And as a student of sports medicine that was a great learning experience for him. He believes if it weren’t for Nikki and Jose, he wouldn’t be on the mound today. He is forever thankful for their time and care.

The odd thing about Jackson’s story is that if it weren’t for his torn labrum, he might not have turned into the pitcher that he has become today because he wouldn’t have met Mark Riggins at the time that he did. What’s also interesting about this story is that Jackson’s first pitching coach was Richie Burgess and he pitched in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for Mark Riggins, who was there from 1996 to 2007.

It was in 2017 where Jackson would finally meet Mark Riggins, but a lot of tough luck had to happen. A lot of tough luck to get to the story of his fastball. While Jackson was rehabbing from his injury in the Fall of 2015, Riggins was named the pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds. Unfortunately, it was short lived as he was fired on July 4th – hardly the fireworks he was hoping for that day. The following summer he was hired as the pitching coach for the Dunedin Blue Jays. And that’s where he would meet Jackson and change his delivery forever.

Riggins was instrumental in helping Jackson’s mechanics, which he uses now when he pitches. He’s responsible for his punk rock windup where his stride leg almost hugs his pant leg causing him to twist like a slowly winding toy that is about to explode and surprise all the children – or something like that.

As Jackson explained to me, he closes his front leg and hip off – showing the backside to the hitters – so that he can generate more drive with the lower half and then rotate his hips into the ball. The rest is 101 mph – a fastball few major-league hitters can catch up to.

Jackson told me that when he moved up to Dunedin from Lansing, he was riding a hot streak, which is an important part to his story. In 16 games for the Lugnuts back in the spring of 2017, he punched in twenty innings, had a 1.80 ERA. He held Midwest League hitters to a .186 AVG. He accomplished all of this by throwing 185 strikes and 129 balls. A total of 314 pitches. 314 pitches thrown with an old windup that was about to be left in Dunedin forever.

Because of the success that Jackson had in Lansing, Riggins sat back and let him do his thing. Until one day the pitching coach for Dunedin walked over to him, with a smile on his face, and asked if he was ready to get to work. Jackson was humbled that a coach like ‘Riggy’, who was that respected in the game, would approach him quietly on his own time and want to work closely with him to tinker with his mechanics and get his legs more involved.

It worked. In 29 games for the Dunedin Jays, Jackson had a shiny 1.07 ERA. He held Florida State League hitters to a .214 AVG. He threw 455 pitches. 279 of them were strikes. 176 of the were balls. Most of them were thrown with a new windup. Most of them were thrown with the legs more involved. All of it would lead to him being clocked in New Hampshire at 101 mph on more than one occasion during the 2018 Fisher Cats championship season.

***

Typically, when an organization has a pitching prospect who throws over 100 mph, that prospect isn’t an under-the-radar arm in the system. Now, that’s a bit different when a pipeline features prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Nate Pearson, and Eric Pardinho.

It’s easy to get lost in a top-5 farm system. However, Jackson McClelland is anything but lost. He was recently called the ‘Jays’ closer of the future’ in an article in MLB.com, which was humbling for him. But he made it clear to me that he is ready to take on whatever role and pitch-type he has to and will do anything to help give whatever team he is pitching for a chance to win games.

This is a big season for Jackson, who turns 25 in July, as the Jays are moving into a new direction with a wave of future prospects who are about to land in Toronto and begin a new era.

This season he is focusing on attention to detail with each and every pitch – trying to make each one better than the last. He told me that he is using every avenue that he has available to get better every day. He doesn’t stop working. He doesn’t stop thinking about the game. And he doesn’t stop having fun while he is out there.

Maybe one day he will be sitting behind the left field wall at the Rogers Centre, as he waits to get the call from Charlie. For now, he will continue to take the ball in New Hampshire and wait in the ‘pen.