Nevada starting pitchers Jake Jackson and Owen Sharts share several similarities, both on and off the mound.
Both players throw right-handed and come equipped with an advanced repertoire. Both have roots in the southern California area, as Sharts grew up in Simi Valley in Ventura County, Calif. and Jackson grew up in Lake Forest in Orange County, Calif. The two cities are just 109 miles apart from each other.
Jackson still reflects on the day when he battled against Sharts in high school. He represented El Toro High School while Sharts was a member of Simi Valley High School.
“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 local high schools competing against one another, it wasn’t their hometown cities that brought the two hurlers closer together. Instead, it was the struggles both starters endured in 2019 that fueled a bounce-back campaign for the shortened 2020 season.
Obstacles and shortcomings are nothing new for Sharts and Jackson. Those hardships formed an unbreakable bond 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.”
Sharts sang similar praises.
“We do the same thing almost every day together,” he 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 shines on the mound
Prior to the Mountain West Conference suspending all spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharts was in the midst of a record-setting sophomore campaign.
He led the Mountain West with 32 strikeouts over four starts and surrendered 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 struggled to the tune of a 5.96 ERA over 14 starts and couldn’t string together any consistent outings on the hill.
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.
In the end, 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 battles back from injury
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’s sophomore season was plagued with injuries. He appeared in just 11 games and couldn’t find his rhythm when he returned to the mound. 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 breakout freshman year 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, Calif. to strengthen each part of his game 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.”
Duel for the Friday starter
Before the 2020 campaign began, Sharts and Jackson were put to the test for the Friday starter.
Junior lefty Ryan Anderson was drafted in the 12th round by the New York Yankees during the 2019 MLB Draft, leaving his No. 1 spot in the rotation up for grabs. Both of them competed for the top spot and impressed along the way.
“It’s been fun watching them compete,” Bruce said. “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 the Friday spot, 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, Jackson and Sharts will continue to push 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.”
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.