Jackson Lamb pitches for Bedford High School during an MHSAA playoff game in 2013. The right-hander now pitches for the University of Michigan. THE BLADE
ANN ARBOR — As he drove the 45 minutes from his house in Bedford Township to Ann Arbor for what felt like endless rehab after Tommy John surgery in 2015, Jackson Lamb entered a zone of self-reflection.
Negative thoughts were quickly washed out during the months-long therapy with a focus on the positives that awaited following his return to the diamond.
“It was very frustrating,” said Lamb, a former Bedford standout and redshirt junior at the University of Michigan. “I had pretty big expectations coming in, and I wasn’t able to meet any of them because I couldn’t even get on the field.
“Just knowing that I might have the talent but getting forced to stay on the sidelines was the most frustrating part.”
The apprehension was short lived.
In 28-plus innings this season, the Wolverines’ closer has only allowed three earned runs — and all three came Wednesday in a Big Ten tournament loss to Northwestern.
He’s relinquished only 20 hits with 28 strikeouts, 12 walks, and 12 saves for 16th-ranked Michigan (42-14). Opponents are hitting a modest .185 off the right-hander who was named first-team All-Big Ten.
Michigan is the No. 2 seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament, with its eye on hosting an NCAA regional. The Wolverines play No. 6 seed Indiana at 10 a.m. today in an elimination game.
“I can tell you this confidently,” said Michigan pitching coach Sean Kenny. “I’ve never coached a guy in 20 years who has figured out how to get people out with, at times, just the fastball. And it hasn’t been a situation where he doesn’t have anything else to throw. It’s because he hasn’t needed anything else.”
Lamb entered Michigan as an acclaimed outfield-pitcher combination. The Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan as a senior in high school, he was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 20th round of the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft, then by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 35th round of the 2016 draft.
Come June, his draft number is certain to be in the single digits with a lucrative signing bonus that would spell the end of his college career.
The power-pitching Lamb commands the quadrants of the plate with his fastball, painting the corners at every height. He uses both sides, above the hands and below the knees, to fool hitters. His fastball is routinely clocked between 90 and 95 mph.
“He has developed as well as anybody has developed for us in the last few years,” Kenny said. “You could see him progressing even before his injury [in 2016]. He was really starting to figure it out. I think that’s why it was so disappointing for both of us, because you could see everything that was about to happen. Then he gets hurt and you lose your rhythm.”
Just as important as locating pitches is the mental makeup of closers. It’s one of the most stressful positions in all of sports — a weak mind can be a prelude to chaotic final innings.
UM coaches quickly realized Lamb had the fortitude to navigate the final inning.
They remembered the athlete they recruited, a basketball player who would score four points in the first half, then erupt for 30 in the second half. Lamb attacked the last three outs with the same ferocity. Kenny explained it as a meant-to-be-situation, saying Lamb was born to have the ball in his hand for the final outs.
“I just think you go out every day and you have a job to do,” Lamb said. “My role on this team is to close out games. Whether that’s don’t give up three runs, don’t give up two runs, don’t give up a run, that’s what I have to do.
“I don’t think about it as I haven’t given up any runs. It’s the fact that we’re able to close out games and win when we’re supposed to.”
Despite a rash of injuries, Lamb still managed to put up gaudy stats in limited time. He struck out 13 batters in 8⅓ innings a year ago, but broken ribs ended his season before spring arrived.
“He has the right makeup, and he knows how to prepare himself,” Kenny said. “A lot of times in professional baseball, you have to be self-taught and self-motivated. He is all of those things. And I still think that he is still learning. He isn’t as good as he can be. He’s going to be better.”