Before pitch No. 124 during his 29th career start at Pepperdine on April 16, Alek Jacob stands with both feet on the rubber, ready in his windup, bases empty.
One out from history.
• • •
Jacob, Spokane-born and a North Central graduate, was always destined to be a Bulldog.
A Gonzaga fan his entire life, Jacob joined Bulldog baseball camps, attended games and even told his family that he wanted to play for the Zags one day, in order to jump start his MLB aspirations.
His dad Scott took that proclamation to heart, even getting 9-year-old Alek out of school early on March 15, 2007, so the two could catch the first GU game at the Patterson Baseball Complex – the first game on campus in nearly three and a half seasons.
That game and ensuing three-game series were against Rider University, the only series against the Broncs in GU history. GU’s current pitching coach, Brian Harmon was on the mound for the second game of that series.
• • •
It’s 5:40 p.m., and Jacob takes a few deep breaths of the fresh Malibu air. He stares down his catcher Tyler Rando. The Waves’ Reese Alexiades stands in the box with a 3-1 count. He has been batting a shade under .400 since the beginning of 2020.
One out from history.
• • •
Jacob was a dominant pitcher in the Greater Spokane League for the Indians (2013-17). His final two seasons ended with first-team All-GSL awards after leading the league in strikeouts as a junior and posting a 0.90 ERA with 63 strikeouts as a senior.
North Central struggled during Jacob’s tenure with the team, and there were times Jacob would bear the burden of responsibility, even when the result had nothing to do with his performance. But when he won, the credit went first and foremost to his teammates.
“He was absolutely just an outstanding young man,” Mark Douglas, Jacob’s high school coach said. “High integrity, high character and unmatched work ethic.”
Jacob wasn’t recruited really at all out of high school. A baseball junkie, he was on an NC team that didn’t draw any outside excitement. He was the best player on that team, solid on offense and a monster on the mound – where he did most of his damage.
“I just kind of gave him the ball and let him do what he needed to do on the mound,” Douglas said. “He was extremely, extremely smart with his pitches. Alek always had the skills to put the ball where he wanted to put it to get guys out.”
It wasn’t until after his junior season during the summer that the Bulldogs offered him the chance to pitch for his hometown college team.
“To just get that opportunity was a goal for me,” Jacob said. “And I was really happy when they did it and obviously it was pretty tough to turn down.”
• • •
Harmon signals to Rambo the pitch call from the dugout. Rambo drops the sign between his legs for Jacob.
One last breath and Jacob starts his unorthodox pitching motion. His left foot kicks back toward first base before he raises it and slightly corkscrews his body away from the batter. His windup naturally hides the ball behind his torso before his right arm whips forward in a snapping, side-arm slot.
The two-seam fastball starts outside and breaks back over the plate, knee-high, as Alexiades rips the hardest hit ball of the day, a line drive past Jacob’s left shoulder. Jacob sees the ball flash past him and right into the welcoming glove of second baseman Mason Marenco.
• • •
Jacob became the fifth Bulldog since 1960 to toss a no-hitter – and the first in 30 seasons. The previous four were drafted in the MLB Amateur Draft the following June after their no-no’s.
His 27 outs without a hit included 12 strikeouts, 11 flyouts and four groundouts. He issued two walks and hit a batter.
As the jubilation began, junior third baseman Brett Harris was the first to meet him on the mound and engulfed him in a bear hug before the dugout emptied and he was swarmed.
“I don’t even know if I can describe that moment,” Jacob said. “I just didn’t really know what to do. I just started yelling. I’m so excited and everyone’s just running at me, rushing me, about to tackle me on the field. Having fun with your teammates that you’ve been working all year with just grinding every morning, every day, is really something special. It was pretty surreal. I want to be able to do it again.”
Harmon became aware that something felt different about Jacob’s stuff that day. He struck out the side twice and was making hitters flail at pitches, just building up Jacob’s confidence.
Both Harmon and Jacob could feel the mood was different in the dugout.
There are superstitions and unwritten rules galore in baseball, but one of the unbreakable ones is that if the pitcher is dealing at a historical pace, leave him alone.
Harmon said that a few of the veterans on the team were corralling the younger guys away from Jacob in the dugout as the game went on.
While the Bulldogs were plating their final three runs of the game in the eighth inning, Jacob was up and celebrating with the team.
“(The guys) were like, ‘What are you doing? Go sit down. Get out of here,’” Jacob said. “They wanted me to do my thing and they didn’t want me to be distracted. But I think something for me is I kind of needed to get up, move around, stay loose. Because if I’m just sitting there thinking about it, I kind of get in my head.”
Back in Spokane, his dad was at home, casting the game to his TV and stressing out their dogs as he began to yell after each out past the sixth inning as the game inched closer to its conclusion.
After Marenco’s catch and the realization set in on what his son had just accomplished, Scott can’t recall exactly who he called or how he reacted.
“It was all pretty surreal, actually,” Scott said.
Douglas usually would catch a couple games in person a season but has since been relegated to postgame highlights online this season.
He found out about the no-hitter from five or six people who texted and called him. He immediately found the highlights and texted Jacob congratulations.
“If you look at some of his intangibles, and you match that with his ability, I guess it almost kind of felt like it could just be a matter of time (before he threw a historical ballgame),” Douglas said. “It definitely was always a possibility. Because he never takes pitches off.”
While no-hitters can’t be prepared for or expected to happen, Jacob has put himself in the best position to succeed in 2021. He has fine- tuned his approach this season, using visualization techniques that only elite athletes master.
That desire and drive to be a fierce competitor is what separates good pitchers from great ones.
“I live in my own highlight reel and play back all these moments where I’ve done my best in certain outings and visualize myself doing that against the team that I’m playing against that day,” Jacob said. “I think that has really helped me, it’s really a powerful tool and it gets me ready and zoned in for the game.”
From the first day he stepped on campus, Harmon saw the “it factor” oozing out of Jacob. Always in control, confidence flows through Jacob, even if the ball isn’t falling his way.
“(He has) an elite mindset,” Harmon said. “He goes out there with just the confidence to go and execute pitches no matter who we’re playing.”
Aside from his mental workouts, Jacob has been tinkering with his delivery, utilizing a Johnny Cueto-like technique to throw off batters’ timing.
Originating from the Dominican Republic, Cueto currently pitches for the San Francisco Giants. He has carved out quite the solid career – topping the National League in strikeouts in 2014, receiving Cy Young Award votes and winning a World Series with the Kansas City Royals.
Jacob imitates Cueto. He can hold his balance at the top of his delivery or employ a “quick-pitch” to the batters. It’s all about making the guy in the box uncomfortable.
Harmon praises Jacob for his body control and balance, both of which has been a natural skill since he arrived on campus. Also, his ability to meddle with his windup without sacrificing his consistency is a rarity as most pitchers who alter their deliveries and arm slots in-season usually cede a lot of innings to the bullpen.
Douglas recalls during high school that Jacob adjusted his arm slot every season. Sophomore year was about 25% sidearm and 75% over the top. By his senior season, Jacob was 80%-90% sidearm. Those different looks separated him from the rest of the teenage arms.
As a junior and staff ace of the now 21st-ranked Bulldogs, Jacob is expected to drive the team with his arm and his leadership. He doesn’t have a boisterous personality, but he is probably the most respected guy in the clubhouse Harmon said. With 35 men shoved into that clubhouse, there are bound to be conflicting personalities.
“We have a good culture, but it’s really easy for every one of his teammates to root for him, Harmon said. “He’s a guy that no matter who you are, what group you’re in, everybody likes Alek (Jacob). Really proud of him.”
The culture on the baseball team is what GU preaches throughout its athletic department. The university wants to focus on molding successful student-athletes who put the team above the individual.
The relationship between Jacob and the Bulldogs was a perfect match – an exceptional fit – Douglas said because of his desire to excel in the classroom and on the field. Jacob always was building up his teammates at NC, even though he was the star of the team.
“You could be the last guy on the depth chart, the No. 1 guy the depth chart, everyone’s going to get treated the same,” Jacob said. “Everyone’s really good friends and everyone loves each other. And that’s really the best part about it to me, it’s just a family. It’s a brotherhood.”
The 6-foot-3 junior has good size – he fits the current average for an MLB pitcher – and is planning to focus on adding a cutter and a sinker moving forward. Former Zag and current Mariners staff ace, throws a sinker almost half the time in his outings and it is his most efficient pitch.
Jacob’s current repertoire includes a 2-seamer, changeup and slider and those three pitches have led to a 4-1 record with a 3.02 ERA, 0.88 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) and 80 strikeouts. Batters are hitting .172 against him. In 562/3 innings, he has allowed one home run.
“He is kind of an outlier,” Harmon said. “He is not the 95 mile-an-hour arm. He is the low slot, just different guy. And I don’t know if there are a ton of comparisons of that in the pro game. But we’ll see what happens. His strikeout rates are elite.”
Jacob will look to follow in the footsteps of the decade straight of impressive Zag pitchers to play pro ball. First came Marco Gonzales, who graduated in 2010. Then in 2017, fellow Spokane side-armer Wyatt Mills (Mariners). More recently, Mac Lardner and Nick Trogrlic-Iverson in 2020 (both with the St. Louis Cardinals) among almost a dozen more.
After his time at GU is done, Jacob will always see himself as a Zag and plans to return often to the same field he graced for the first time as a 9-year-old.
“Everyone is family and so you want to come back every year and see your family,” Jacob said. “It is definitely a special (place) for sure.”
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