When the Blue Jays signed Jay Jackson to a minor league contract in January of 2023, the move did not make many headlines. It wasn't that the right-hander hadn't produced over the course of a career that had already spanned 16 years, it was more a matter of him not receiving the proper chance to excel.
At the time, he was coming off of a season in which he dominated in the minor leagues in both the Braves and Giants organizations, but earned just two big league appearances in Atlanta for his efforts. He was nowhere near a "sure thing" for playing time in the majors when the ink dried on his minors pact with the Jays, but by year's end that had changed in a big way.
Heck, even by the end of Spring Training it was apparent that the guy was legit. The right-hander made eight scoreless appearances, racking up 13 strikeouts with just two walks in 9.1 innings of work. While he did not make the Opening Day roster, he exercised an opt-out in his contract only to re-sign on a split contract. While his new deal earned him a spot on the Blue Jays' 40-man roster, Jackson was to start the year in Triple-A with the Buffalo Bisons.
After a rocky start to his season in the minor leagues, Jackson earned his first big league call-up with the Jays in early May. He made a total of three outings and gave up just one earned run, although it was a highly controversial one. On May 15 against the Yankees, he surrendered a home run to arch rival Aaron Judge. As we all know, Judge makes a habit of destroying hittable pitches, but prior to this at-bat, he was repeatedly glancing over at the Yankees dugout. After the home run, he came under fire for "cheating", but Jackson himself later confirmed that he was accidentally tipping his pitches.
The very next day, Jackson was on his way back to Buffalo, having been demoted for the first time in-season. He was brought back up in the beginning of June, made one appearance in which he went almost three scoreless innings of shutout ball before being demoted again.
Once July came around, Jackson really began establishing himself as one of the better relief pitching options on the Blue Jays. As a matter of fact, he didn't give up a single run in the entire month (over nine outings). This stretch continued into the middle of August, when he finally surrendered two runs in a game against the Cubs. He followed that appearance up with two more outings in which he allowed at least one earned run and suddenly, he looked human after all.
The stretch from essentially the middle of May to the middle of August deserves a bit more attention. After that game against the Yankees in May and before the one against the Cubs in August, Jackson lowered his ERA from 3.00 all the way down to 0.46. He struck out 18 batters in just under 17 innings of work, walked only four and didn't allow a single run. Obviously this was never going to be sustainable, but man was it fun to watch.
After spending nearly the last two months straight in the big league bullpen, Jackson was optioned to Buffalo on August 18th. On the 27th, he was promoted once again, only to be sent back down on September 11th. Once he went down in September, he had hit his limit of in-season options tied to his name. This meant that the Blue Jays could call him back up again, but from there, he was no longer optionable to the minors. He would have to be designated for assignment if the club wanted to stash him in Triple-A once again.
Unfortunately, Major League Baseball is a business and sometimes things don't work out the way many think it "should". Jackson was designated for assignment on October 1 and was forced to watch the Jays make the playoffs without him. He was physically with the club, operating as a "just in case player" that the team kept around in case there were any injuries popping up, but he was no longer a part of the 26-man or 40-man rosters for the Jays. All told, he ended his season with 25 outings in which he posted a 2.12 ERA with 27 strikeouts and nine walks in 29.2 innings of work.
What makes Jackson most unique is the story of what him and his family have gone through since the month of July. Jackson and his fiancé Sam, who has become something of a celebrity amongst Blue Jays fans herself, were expecting their baby boy near the end of October. Instead, their son JR was born on July 6, nearly four months before his due date.
Every single time the Blue Jays had a day off, or Jackson had a day or two of down time before reporting to Triple-A, he was in the NICU with his son and fiancé. There are heartwarming stories everywhere (Toronto Star, The Athletic, Canadian Baseball Network, amongst others) and in speaking to Sam recently, JR is up to 8lbs and is tentatively going to come home on or a little bit before Thanksgiving.
This is part of what makes Jay Jackson the person special. He carried a mental load far beyond what many can even comprehend throughout the second half of the season. On the field, he was unhittable for months at a time while off the field, his mind and heart were with his family. This is without mentioning that he took every single one of his demotions to the minor leagues in stride. He never complained, never had a bad word to say, and took his demotions as a challenge to get back to the big leagues.
Jackson will be a free agent in the coming days. Once the World Series ends, he will join the likes of Jordan Hicks, Kevin Kiermaier, Matt Chapman, Hyun Jin Ryu and possibly Whit Merrifield on the open market. There is sure to be interest from both sides in a potential reunion, but Jackson has earned a big league contract next year, regardless of what team it comes from.
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