Jake Jackson and Owen Sharts are bonded on and off the mound.
Both are starting pitchers for the Nevada baseball team. They throw right-handed and come equipped with a pair of velocity-packed fastballs.
They each have roots in the Southern California area 109 miles apart from one another. Jackson grew up in Lake Forest in Orange County. Sharts is a native of Simi Valley in Ventura County.
Before the Mountain West Conference suspended all spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nevada’s top two starters were in the midst of breakout seasons.
Jackson still remembers facing Sharts on the hill in high school. Jackson was a junior for the El Toro Chargers while Sharts was a sophomore for the Simi Valley Pioneers.
“We played against each other the day that I committed to Nevada,” Jackson said. “He started against us in a summer game and I knew of him. … He was always on my radar since we faced off.”
Despite their high school matchup , it wasn’t hometown cities that brought the two hurlers closer together. It was the struggles they both endured in 2019 that fueled a bounce-back campaign for the shortened 2020 season. Hardships formed an unbreakable friendship in the process.
“We just feed off each other,” Jackson said. “We always push each other to work harder and get better every day. We’re always competitive with one another and I’ve taken his advice and experience to focus on another year to get better.”
“We do the same thing almost every day together,” Sharts said. “Things like running, throwing, catching and just taking care of our arms before games. It is fun to compete with each other, but it’s really about getting better.”
Sharts dazzles on the mound in second year
Sharts flashed his supreme talent and ability during his sophomore season with the Wolf Pack.
He led the Mountain West with 32 strikeouts in four starts, surrendering just seven walks during the year. Sharts finished the shortened season with a 4.91 ERA in 22 innings. He tallied a career-high 11 strikeouts over seven innings against Hofstra on Feb. 28.
“Owen is evolving and growing as a player and a person,” head coach T.J. Bruce said. “He’s learned about himself and what he can get better at and improve upon.”
Sharts credits his successful sophomore year to the obstacles he encountered as a freshman. Last season, he recorded a 5.96 ERA over 14 starts and couldn’t string together any consistent outings.
His first season at Nevada was a contrast to his dominance with Simi Valley, where Sharts earned 2018 League MVP and won two Coastal Canyon League Championships in 2016 and 2018.
With a new perspective, Sharts learned from his mistakes and pitched with a purpose in 2020.
“Coming off last year I had a lot to learn,” he said. “It was a lot of self-reflecting and looking at myself in the mirror. That’s huge for me. Pitching is more mental than physical when you get out there and I’ve been able to keep that calm mindset.”
Jackson rebounds from injury
Following an injury-plagued sophomore season, Jackson rebounded in a big way for Nevada.
The junior had a team-best 3.00 ERA and was named Wolf Pack Student-Athlete of the Week on March 9. His 24 innings pitched ranked second in the Mountain West to go along with 16 strikeouts in four starts.
Jackson appeared in just 11 games last year and couldn’t find his rhythm when he returned from injury. The physical pain and struggle to return took a toll on him mentally.
“Last year was rough due to the injury and not finding myself,” he said. “Then coming back and not doing what I was expected to do was challenging. But I’ve been getting back to that mindset and giving us a chance to win every game.”
Coming off a successful freshman season in 2018, Jackson experienced his fair share of obstacles last season. But an offseason routine helped get his mind and body back in focus.
Jackson spent countless hours in Santa Barbara to strengthen his mechanics in preparation for the season. It translated to a triumphant junior year.
“I just battled and competed with myself every single day,” he said. “It helped my mindset grow and made me a better person on and off the field. I’ve been getting back to myself, just attacking hitters and knowing that nobody is going to beat me.”
Competitive battle for the Friday starter
Before the 2020 campaign began, Sharts and Jackson were put to the test for the Friday starter.
In college baseball, Friday usually indicates the start of a new series. The No. 1 pitcher in the rotation generally starts.
Junior lefty Ryan Anderson was drafted in the 12th round by the New York Yankees during the 2019 MLB Draft, which left his No. 1 spot up for grabs. Both of them went head-to-head for the top spot and impressed along the way.
“It’s been fun watching them compete,” Bruce said earlier this season. “Owen was forced to adjust and he looked sharp. Jake has come out with what he’s done and played well. It’s a tribute to them and our coaches.”
Sharts ultimately won, but the prestige of being the No. 1 starter didn’t come into effect. He and Jackson gave the Wolf Pack a potent combination at the front of the rotation.
“For us, it didn’t matter who started Friday or Saturday,” Sharts said. “I think we have two Friday guys, that’s how I look at it. It doesn’t matter if he goes first or I go first, you’re getting two quality starts out of us. You’re not getting anything short of our best.”
The 2020 Nevada baseball season was cut short, but Sharts and Jackson formed an unbreakable connection. They overcame individual obstacles to give the Wolf Pack a chance to win every outing.
When Nevada baseball returns, the two pitchers will keep pushing each other to new heights.
“It’s every week where I’m trying to go more innings or throw more strikeouts than him,” Jackson said. “We just constantly bounce that dynamic off of each other. But it’s all been relevant to our success and we couldn’t do it without each other.”