Jacob Wright signs
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS ó Jacob Wright lifted a routine flyball to center field against Lexington on Wednesday, ran it out like he was being pursued by a swarm of bees and gently tapped second base with his foot before hustling to the dugout.
Later that night, the Kannapolis Legion slugger was called out on strikes on a borderline pitch and calmly walked away without a harsh word or menacing glance for umpire Jeremy Ryan.
For Wright, the big challenge is handling the little things.
“Just keeping his cool and keeping it between the lines,” said Empsy Thompson, who coached Wright at A.L. Brown.
The athletic things, Wright is already good at.
Some he was born good at. Some he’s gotten good at through long hours in weight rooms and batting cages. Wright’s taken thousands of swings after practices with his brother and father.
One of the state’s more talented recent high school graduates and a participant in tonight’s Area III All-Star Game at Newman Park, Wright owns a powerful, 6-foot-1, 210-pound body, a bruising bat, good speed and a right arm that must have been struck by a lightning bolt in the delivery room.
“Jacob is a stud,” Thompson said. “He’s a player of tremendous ability, plus he doesn’t mind work. He really wants to be good.”
Radar guns held by coaches and scouts consistently flash 91s and 92s when Wright is on the hill, and he said he’s thrown a brisk 95 mph.
Wright finally signed with Division II Erskine this summer after lengthy courtships from a parade of suitors.
There was no press conference. Wright simply signed the papers and his family faxed them back to happy Erskine coaches who were thrilled to add him to a deep recruiting class.
Why Erskine, a Conference Carolinas school in Due West, S.C., when so many were interested?
“I was offered some full rides ó Gardner-Webb, UNC Pembroke,” Wright explained. “There were a lot of places that wanted me as a pitcher, places that told me they would also give me a chance to hit. But at Erskine, I’m definitely going there with the idea that I’m a two-way player. I really want to play every day, and I’ll have a chance to play outfield there and then come in from the outfield and close.”
Wright’s Legion coach Matt Stack played baseball at Erskine. That was a factor. Stack thinks the world of Erskine head coach Kevin Nichols.
“I’ve been around a lot of good baseball coaches, but Coach Nichols is the best one,” Stack said. “He’ll help Jacob. They’ll improve his pitching mechanics, and it won’t surprise me if he’s throwing high-90s three years from now.”
Nichols has Kannapolis ties. A product of the University of Alabama at Huntsville where he once hit four homers in a single game, Nichols was signed by Philadelphia and played minor-league ball in Kannapolis for the Piedmont Boll Weevils.
As a 24-year-old third baseman in 1997, Nichols batted .293 with five homers and 46 RBIs for the Weevils. Playing next to him was 18-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the future National League MVP.
Nichols also shared a dugout with Ricky Williams, who earned fame in another sport. Williams couldn’t hit, but he demonstrated his skills as a running back by crushing hapless catchers in home-plate collisions.
Nichols became Erskine’s head coach prior to the 2000 season and has built a solid program. Erskine was 44-13 in 2008, earned a berth in the NCAA regionals and was ranked in national polls for the first time.
Nichols has produced 18 players who signed pro contracts, a figure that caught Wright’s eye.
“He’s got this black book with all these scouts’ names in it,” Wright said. “And pro ball is my goal.”
Thompson watched Wright make strides toward his goal every season, but the emotional progress sometimes lagged behind the physical gains.
Wright sometimes seemed better suited for football, where he could knock someone down every few minutes, but teammate Alex Edwards’ torn ACL on the gridiron and the grueling rehab that followed convinced Wright to stick exclusively with baseball.
Thompson guided Wright through flung helmets, thrown bats, mound meltdowns, ejections and suspensions without ever losing sight of the big picture.
“A coach’s job is to help kids get across that bridge and sometimes that bridge is rocky and full of obstacles,” Thompson said. “But Jacob is a good guy, a very good guy. He was good to have in class, and he always played hard for me. Yes, there were times when I got frustrated, but it wasn’t ever frustration with his effort or his play. It was just frustration with how he channeled his emotions. And I will say this ó he improved tremendously in that regard from the time he first walked into the building at A.L. Brown.”
Everyone agrees Wright is more emotional when he’s pitching than playing the outfield. He’s had trouble on the mound in the past dealing with calls, with errors, with HBPs and with hostile crowds, but there is almost nightly evidence now that he’s turning the corner and is ready to focus his inner fire and awesome arm as a confident closer.
For one or two innings he can be untouchable, and he has the swagger and the heat to put games away.
“Jacob is a great player physically, and you can see him developing more mentally every day,” Stack said. “He’s maturing, and when it all comes together, he has the tools to play this game for a very long time.”
Wright walloped nine homers as a senior and dominated on the mound when he threw strikes.
He’s hit six more homers in Legion ball this summer, including a monstrous shot at Mocksville people are still chattering about.
In a recent victory against South Rowan, Wright ran the table ó circus catch, home run, save. He can do it all.
Stack said Wright is getting a “98 percent scholarship for baseball.” That’s rare, but he’s an unusual talent with a high ceiling.
“Coach Stack tells me there’s nothing to do at Erskine except play baseball and go to school, but that’s fine with me,” Wright said. “I want to go down there, work hard and do everything I can to reach the next level.”
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