Jax 'really impressive,' logs career-high 10 K's

August 11th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering didn’t strike anyone out in his last start, he had some ground to make up -- and he wasted no time in doing that.

Forget for a second that he was never a strikeout pitcher who could blow his stuff by hitters in the Minor Leagues, or that he had never reached double digits in strikeouts in any professional start before this season. Armed with a better fastball and a new approach, the rookie reached previously unseen heights on Tuesday night against the White Sox, posting a career-best 10 strikeouts against one of the league’s premier offenses as he pitched the Twins to a 4-3 win.

“You have to do a lot of things right to go six [innings] and only give up a few against a good offense like this, but the swing and miss was really impressive while pitching in the zone and finding a way to do that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.

Jax wasn’t originally in line for the victory despite his six strong innings, also a career-high, because he allowed back-to-back homers to Adam Engel and José Abreu in the third inning, with the two-run shot and solo blast sending the White Sox to a 3-2 lead. That stood until Willians Astudillo’s two-run homer in the sixth put the Twins ahead, when he went to a knee on a mighty swing that swatted an inside pitch to the left-field seats.

“La Tortuga” helped the cause on defense, too, snaring a liner at third base in the eighth inning to start an inning-ending double play with the tying run on first.

“You're really never sure what he's going to do,” Baldelli said. “Sometimes, he does more damage on pitches six inches above the zone or in or down. You really don't know. He's a guy that does cover different areas in unique ways and can throw some loops at the opposing team and the opposing pitchers.”

For those who wondered if Jax’s low career strikeout totals and low-90s fastball could continue to play at the big league level, consider, too, that this is a different Jax in 2021, one with more vertical movement on his fastball thanks to some tweaked mechanics involving his hand placement during his motion and a greater reliance on his fastball and slider.

In fact, he threw the fastball and slider on 68 of his 83 pitches while using his curveball and changeup only to mix things up, a variation from the more balanced approach he’s used in the past. It’s tough to argue with the results, considering his 10 strikeouts matched his most in any professional start since he was drafted in 2016. Prior to this season, when he made those adjustments, he had never topped eight strikeouts in a start.

Jax became the first Twins rookie pitcher with double-digit strikeouts in a game since Trevor May struck out 10 White Sox batters on Sept. 14, 2014.

“I know those are my two strengths, truly, when I’m on the mound: my slider for a strikeout pitch and setting up with my fastball,” Jax said. “I’ve always had good command of my fastball, but now that it’s sort of playing to the carry, technicality of a fastball, I can use and exploit that.”

Jax threw more sliders (35) than fastballs (33) in a start for the first time in his big league career and, as he mentioned, picked up seven of his 10 strikeouts with the slider. Five of those came swinging, but two also came looking -- a sign that the White Sox hitters didn’t necessarily have Jax’s new approach figured out or weren’t reading the movement of the pitch properly.

“We saw some swings at some sliders that were in the dirt bouncing,” Baldelli said. “I saw a lot of sliders, too, that when he would throw it and spin it real good in the zone, sometimes they would just take it. They weren’t able to pull the trigger on it.”

As for whether his stuff is good enough to translate his consistent Minors performance (3.20 career ERA) to the Majors? Across Jax’s last four outings, when he’s gotten the opportunity to start games and stay on a regular schedule, he has a 2.66 ERA in 20 1/3 frames against strong competition featuring the White Sox twice, the Astros and the Cardinals.

The sample size is still small -- albeit growing -- and he still has more to show. But showing off upside like this, in clear advancement from his Minor League career, will continue to help him stand out from a young starter pack that already includes Bailey Ober and Charlie Barnes and could also grow to encompass Randy Dobnak, Lewis Thorpe and Joe Ryan in the coming months.

“Double-digit strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox is not something you're going to see from a lot of starting pitchers in this game,” Baldelli said.

“I always knew I could get outs, up and down the lower levels in the Minors,” Jax said. “That was never an issue. [The issue] was just missing barrels and swings and misses. … I knew that I had to adapt as well. That was definitely relayed to me coming into this year. If I wanted to give myself the best chance, I had to also improve my stuff from that standpoint.”