WILMINGTON, Mass. -– When Wilmington lefthander Jackson Gillis racked up 15 strikeouts in his first varsity start last year as a freshman, Wildcats’ coach Aldo Caira knew he had something special on his hands.
Since then, the 6-foot-3 sophomore has taken MIAA baseball by storm and is quickly evolving into one of New England’s most prized pitching prospects. A laundry list of major Division 1 programs including LSU, North Carolina, Duke, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Wake Forest and Pitt are all taking an early interest in the strong southpaw.
Caira said that many of the college scouts he heard from this past winter watched Gillis throw in his very first start of the year this year, a no-hitter against Woburn where he recorded 14 K’s.
“He was our No. 3 pitcher last year and won three games for us. He didn’t throw the ball as hard as he’s throwing this year, but he really had that mound presence,” Caira said of Gillis, “He pitches higher than his age, and you could tell right away he had it.”
With a fastball that ranges anywhere from 86-90 MPH to go along with a heavy, sweeping curve ball to keep batters off-balanced, Gillis’ strong arm and cool mound demeanor have immediately separated himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in the state – even as a sophomore.
In six starts this year for Wilmington, Gillis holds a 5-2 record and has already added up 86 strikeouts in 43.1 innings pitched. His 1.16 earned run average is one of the state’s most miniscule.
For all his natural talent though, some of Gillis’ success this season has come as a result of his off-season regimen. This past winter, Gillis began working with pitching coach Matt Blake, owner of Elite Pitching Development and pitching coordinator at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Mass.
Immediately, Blake saw Gillis’ obvious talent, but one mechanical flaw stood out to him after watching Gillis throw on film.
“When he first came in I heard good things about him," Blake said. "He has nice arm action, he’s always kind of had it -- that’s a natural piece that makes him really special. He didn’t have the footwork though, that’s where his inconsistencies would show."
Jackson’s lack of balance and direction with his stride, though quickly identifiable on film for Blake, is one that takes countless amounts of repetition and film work for a pitcher to fix. Blake explained that because Gillis showed a tendency to overstride in his pitching motion, a lot of his pitches would miss high and out of the strike zone.
“With Jackson, the first time we got him off the mound we filmed him about every other bullpen. I don’t usually [film] that often, but for him I felt like it was more important. He learned to reign that stride in just a hair,” Blake said, “We just tried to re-emphasize to be a good athlete, pitch with a good tempo, and understanding that direction to the target is really important. It took him a little while to learn, harness, and repeat those concepts.”
“I had my own program that I followed from day to day –- I just felt myself getting stronger as the off-season went on,” Gillis said of his winter routine with Blake, “It really got me ready for the start of this season, it was my first year working with Matt but I really liked it. I’d say it has probably added an easy four or five miles an hour.”
Though he has experienced a few slight bumps in the road along the way, Gillis showed just how far he has come in his start last week against Middlesex League foe Wakefield. He struggled with his command in his previous start, but Gillis came back strong to shut down Wakefield, giving up just one earned run and striking out 14 Warrior batters in the process.
Caira’s favorite part though? Only one walk was surrendered.
“He was real dominant early on, this was the start we wanted him to get back to that,” Caira said, “His last outing was a little bit shaky. Throwing the first pitch for a strike like that is really what we were focusing on. With a kid like Jackson, when you get that first pitch strike it really puts the batter in a hole.”
Gillis’ control was pinpoint against Wakefield, particularly early in counts where he converted a first-pitch strike to 18 of the 28 batters he faced. Once again, his control was in rare form in his most recent start against Stoneham on Monday.
The sophomore played hero once again for the Wildcats, striking out 16 batters in a 10-2 victory for Wilmington. A bunt single broke up his no-hit bid in the sixth inning. In addition to Gillis going 3-for-4 with a home run, the win gave the Wildcats the Middlesex League's Freedom division title in their biggest game of the regular season.
“Now that he’s doing what he’s doing, he’s maturing, and hopefully that’s what he’ll do next year and the year after,” Caira said. “So that by the time he’s a senior he’ll be a monster out there.”