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Inside the ‘warrior’ mentality that’s transformed Rogers native Jackson Wells into UALR’s ace

by Mitchell Gladstone | May 5, 2023 at 2:30 a.m.
University of Arkansas-Little Rock pitcher Jackson Wells boasts a 1.39 earned run average this season, fourth-best in all of NCAA Division I baseball. (Photo courtesy of UALR Athletics)

Jackson Wells isn't much interested in ceilings.

He's long believed in his own talent -- dating back to his junior season at Rogers High School -- even his fastball hovered somewhere in the low-to-mid-80s.

But when the coronavirus pandemic cut short his junior season, Wells began to reconsider his mental approach.

"I wasn't really all there," Wells explained. "It was kind of frustrating. I know I should be playing, but whenever I play, I don't perform as good as I should."

Those early days of the pandemic catalyzed Wells' development, a steady progression from relative unknown to Gatorade Player of the Year to Division I prospect to one of the best pitchers in all of college baseball.

The University of Arkansas-Little Rock has been the beneficiary of the latest step in Wells' evolution, the Trojans riding their 5-11, 200-pound righty ace to a 10-5 record in Ohio Valley Conference play.

And as UALR begins the home stretch of its regular season, Wells doesn't have to think about what's next. He's here and has the confidence that he belongs.

"He's got the heart of a warrior," said Lance Spigner, Wells' junior college coach. "He's going out to win every time he throws and he thinks he is going to win."

Meticulous and methodical

Until late last summer, it appeared as if Wells was going to return to the University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain, a Division II junior college in Mena.

Although Wells got the start in the Class 6A state championship game in 2021, helping Rogers to a title, he was a late bloomer. With covid-19 limiting recruiting opportunities throughout his senior season with the Mounties, Wells figured it best to go to Arkansas-Rich Mountain and hopefully find better success in a later recruiting cycle.

Playing for Spigner and the Bucks, Wells earned all-region honors, going 8-2 in 13 games with five complete games, a 3.95 ERA and more than nine strikeouts per nine innings.

Eventually, UALR and another school, which Wells declined to name, began to express interest.

Brady Cox, who had just been hired as the Trojans' pitching coach, could see Wells' feel for the game on film. But it was Wells' work ethic -- something repeatedly praised by both Spigner and UALR Coach Chris Curry -- that jumped out when Cox and Wells both arrived in Little Rock.

"You could tell he was very meticulous, very methodical. Everything he did had a reason," Cox explained. "The bigger thing was he has a foundation of how he wants to do things, but he's also open and willing to change...depending on how that's going to help him get better."

The key, on a granular level, was refining the command of his off-speed pitches.

Wells' fastball had consistently trended up, measuring in the high 80s last spring before regularly reaching 90 miles per hour this past fall. Now, it's typically in the low 90s, touching as high as 93 this season.

But Wells' only reliable alternative to the heater was "a decent changeup."

He first tinkered with a curveball in the offseason, but it wasn't effective. Wells then tried a small slider that didn't play well either.

He and Cox messed with different grips until they worked out the combination of a big slider and a cutter that pair with an above-average fastball and changeup.

Cox, a catcher-turned-pitcher who spent three years in the Kansas City Royals organization, said he and Wells go game-by-game to figure out what mix of pitches will work best on a given night.

As much belief as Wells has in his own work, he acknowledges it's not always going to translate into desired results.

"You don't have to be perfect every game to be able to succeed," Wells said. "Whenever something goes wrong, even during the game, it's like, 'Okay, you can pitch out of this, minimize the inning and then regroup.'"

Failing forward

Wells' outing two weeks ago against Southern Illinois Edwardsville showed what he can do best: nine shutout innings, nine strikeouts, no walks and just eight hits allowed on 120 pitches.

That brought his season ERA down to 1.07 -- second-best in Division I at the time.

The next day, Wells got back at it, trying to figure out how to be even better. His 1.39 ERA, entering tonight's start against Southern Indiana, ranks fourth nationally.

What showed Cox most, though, was a start nearly a month ago versus Tennessee-Martin.

Wells, normally UALR's Friday night starter, saw his turn against Southeast Missouri State the weekend prior pushed to Saturday because of rain. The Trojans' series opener versus the Skyhawks was then moved up a day to Thursday because of Easter Sunday.

Wells asked Curry and Cox for the ball but quickly ran into trouble. After throwing 24 pitches in the first inning, he gave up a solo home run and a double with one out in the second.

While he escaped without further damage, the next two batters worked lengthy at-bats, pushing Wells' pitch count into the 50s.

He later admitted it was an off-night, yet Wells found a way to retire six of the next seven he faced and hold Tennessee-Martin to two runs over five innings before a late Trojan walk-off win.

"He knows [success] can be taken away from him in a heartbeat," Cox said. "The way his mind works, he says, 'Okay, this is where I'm at. I want to be better than that.'

"That's not from a place of arrogance, but from just not being satisfied."

It's that mindset which allows Wells to step out of the moment and acknowledge a lofty goal. He believes he'll play in the big leagues one day.

It's not unique. Nor is it given. Cox knows all too well, having failed to advance past the rookie-ball level before retiring at 24.

Spigner saw the best in Wells just after his stumbles. But there haven't been many this spring.

Wells knows more will come. His work will ensure they don't repeat.

"A true competitor [fails] forward as opposed to getting in a rut," Spigner said of Wells. "He bounces back from [bad games] pretty easily, and whoever he's got the next time out there, they better watch out."

Print Headline: Tenacity boosts UALR’s Wells


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