Edwin Jackson's October mission

To bring the Nats a ring and earn himself some long-term security

Updated: October 9, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
By Teddy Mitrosilis | ESPN Insider

The ghost of this postseason floated out from behind closed doors and across the clubhouse a couple of weeks weeks ago, grabbing his glove and heading for the field, vanishing as quickly as he came.

Stephen Strasburg wasn't dodging media and their persistent questions about his being shut down in September, rendering him a helpless ace this October. He was just a man in the middle of his work, the work still permitted by the experts entrusted to protect him from becoming a casualty of his own competitiveness and the short-term temptations that intoxicate clubs in pennant races.

As for the rest of the Washington Nationals' pitching staff, Gio Gonzalez joked at his locker, hat backward and baseball pants rolled up to midthigh, revealing black compression shorts underneath.

Jordan Zimmermann sat quietly in a corner, away from the speakers blaring hip-hop, preparing to pitch.

In the center of the clubhouse current was Edwin Jackson, overseeing a card game and discussions with nearby teammates. "Step into my office," Jackson says, rolling a black desk chair next to his.

As the riches of postseason baseball spread to Washington for the first time since the depths of the Depression and FDR's words about fear and fear itself, Jackson sits in the literal center of his teammates and the figurative center of the Nationals' rotation and their hopes of everything this fall could be. Tied 1-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, manager Davey Johnson can't hand the ball to Strasburg and ask him to put an opponent to sleep, so he turns to Jackson.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Jackson
Brad Mills/US PresswireEdwin Jackson posted a 4.03 ERA in 31 starts for the Nats this year.

No, Washington's success isn't all on the 28-year-old right-hander. There's Gonzalez, 27, and Zimmermann, 26, who have had their struggles so far this series but are both capable of dominance. There's Ross Detwiler, 26, who has had a fine season. And, as Jackson says when asked about filling Strasburg's void, "As a pitcher, you feel it's your responsibility to help the team, period. You can't be selfish. It's not necessarily about you."

But, quietly, Jackson is a little different from the others. He's older in years and deeper in experiences. He rose to the big leagues at 19 with the Dodgers, and he fell hard after that, a part of four trades and five teams by age 26. At 27, he was dealt twice on the same day.

He has grown up tough in the glare of the big leagues. He has felt the chill of World Series champagne on his neck, and he has fought to ignore the incessant trade targets on his back. His natural talent has been too much for opponents many times, and many times a lineup has been too much for him. Mostly because, when Jackson struggles, he'll overanalzye his performance.

"You need to have a clear mind and be relaxed," Jackson says. "The less I worry about the hitter, the better I am."

The Nationals were aware that Jackson is prone to ups and downs when they gave him a one-year, $11 million deal this past winter, but they had a need and it was not a long-term commitment.

"They knew that Strasburg was going to be on the shelf at some point, and that's why they brought [Jackson] in," an MLB evaluator familiar with Jackson said. "He ain't gonna be Strasburg, but he can fill that gap in the postseason, no question."

Jackson was insurance with postseason experience, something no other Washington starter had coming into 2012, and now the Nationals are calling in their claim. But that's not all he is. They got Jackson for more than the sum of his victories and failures and the totality of his wisdom. The Nationals got Jackson because, above all else, he brings a brand of talent that could help drive them through the checkered flag of their dreams, not just provide a safety net when they have stepped to the edge of them.

"Edwin has been on winners, and that's a big asset because he can talk to guys, but people forget he has great stuff," said Steve McCatty, Washington's pitching coach. "He throws 95-96 mph and has, when it's [right], an unhittable slider. Plus it gets cold in a lot of places in the postseason, and nobody feels comfortable hitting when it's cold. When you get jammed with a 95 mph fastball on the hands, it hurts."

This is Jackson's fourth postseason trip -- he counts 2004 with the Dodgers, even though he didn't pitch, because "it opened my eyes to the atmosphere" -- and he won a ring with the Cardinals last year. His 4.91 October ERA suggests he hasn't found his playoff form, but with each trip, he says, he gets a little closer to the pure energy of pitching. Jackson calls it "controlled aggressiveness," a state where his conscience retreats, tension and noise fade, and suddenly it's just him holding a baseball in his right hand, free to fire.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Jackson
AP Photo/Matt SaylesEdwin Jackson debuted at age 19 with the Dodgers, but never lived up to the huge hype he generated in the minors.

"The postseason is more hostile, and naturally you want to go out fired up," Jackson said. "But to get caught up in that and try to do something other than what got you there, it hurts more than it helps. I tell myself to stay relaxed, especially on the days when I'm feeling good."

Johnson quickly sees when Jackson is leaving that state. His tempo slows, his mind speeds up, he becomes mechanical. You can see him thinking.

"He'll get a little too deliberate and a little cautious," Johnson said. "Then the defense starts to get flat-footed. So I'll tell him, 'Hey, quit thinking, just get up and rock and fire.'"

If Jackson does that this postseason, just rock and fire, he'll be pitching for more than Washington. As an impending free agent, he'll be pitching for himself. Jackson won't say that, of course. He has become numb to the process, moving so much in so little time that it just doesn't matter anymore.

"If you're playing for free agency or a contract, if I pitch for numbers, it takes away from what I'm trying to do," Jackson said. "That's pointless."

That's different from saying he ignores the chatter. Jackson is thoughtful. He looks down at a shiny white ball in his hands, he looks up at you, his eyes rarely dance around the room when he talks. He acknowledges he's tired of moving to new teams and cities every year. "But I'm also tired of being inconsistent," he says.

A strong postseason would give Jackson momentum heading into free agency, possibly increasing his leverage.

"That momentum certainly does help," said an MLB agent who doesn't represent Jackson. "But the dollars gotta be there, and the market has to develop. It always starts with a team that has money, a glaring hole and is already competitive. If those things come together, then yes, you can have a big jump in value."

Jackson's market will heat up as the winter turns cold, and teams will have some options. Among those figure to be Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse. Where Jackson falls in line is undetermined.

"With Jackson, it's about his body of work in the last three years and what he'll do in the next three years," the evaluator said. "He's a solid No. 3 starter on a championship club. I think there's a three-year deal out there for him; that's what I'll write in my evaluation."

For now, as Jackson says, that's pointless. It's about the World Series ring glistening 10 wins out on the horizon. It's about Washington, the team and the place. It's about what's next.

"There's not too much new that can happen to me," Jackson says. "I've been at the very top, I've been at the very bottom, I've been everywhere in between."

Jackson has been everywhere for a time, but he's been nowhere for long. He's a veteran who has never had much of a home, the one thing that has eluded him. Like Strasburg to the Nationals, that's his void.

As Jackson takes the ball against St. Louis and pitches to fill Washington's void, he's also pitching to fill his own.

Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN Insider. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.