FRONT ROYAL — Jackson Arnold could’ve been a little timid when he returned to the mound during the American Legion baseball season last summer and no one would’ve blamed him.
A month and a half before Arnold made his season debut for Front Royal Post 53 last July, he was on the receiving end of one of the most frightening plays in baseball.
As Warren County High School’s baseball team was preparing for the upcoming Region 3B tournament last May, Arnold was on the mound throwing live batting practice when teammate Joey Sorge lined a ball right back up the middle. Fellow Wildcat Ronnie Dodson, who was playing second base at the time, remembers initially thinking that the line drive hit Arnold’s glove. As it turned out, Arnold was late getting his left hand up to protect his face.
Arnold doesn’t recall it being a particularly painful experience — “teeth don’t really have pain receptors,” he explained — but there was significant damage done. The line drive fractured his maxilla, the bone of the upper jaw, below his nose, broke three teeth — including the front two — and pushed another out of place. He needed 19 stitches to close the gashes in his lips.
It could’ve been a traumatic experience. Even Dodson, the Wildcats’ catcher and a running back/linebacker on the school’s football team, admitted if the same thing had happened to him, he’d be skittish when he set foot on a mound again.
“I’m not too big on like being scared or being frightful,” Arnold said after practice last Wednesday. “I played summer ball as soon as I got cleared. First day I got cleared, I was at tryouts trying to pitch again.
“It’s really just all that fighter mentality. I love baseball. I love the game of baseball. I never wanted to be away from it or anything like that, so it was like ‘get me back as fast as possible.’ I don’t care if I have puffed up lips and no front teeth, it doesn’t matter. I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna try to get my outs and stuff like that, get my strikes in.”
The Wildcats are fortunate Arnold has that mindset.
One of Warren County’s biggest question marks entering the 2019 season under first-year head coach John Tierney was who would pick up the slack on the mound after the graduation of Dodson’s older brother Jacob, who threw 60 ⅔ innings as the Wildcats’ ace last spring.
Arnold, who logged the second-most innings (24 ⅓) for the Wildcats in 2018, was the natural first choice to take over the No. 1 spot in the rotation. He doesn’t call himself an “ace,” though. He prefers to consider himself, Sorge and junior Caleb Heflin as 1A, 1B and 1C, and he said that trio entered the season saying “we’ve gotta eat up these innings.”
“I’m just going out there, I’m trying to give my guys a chance to win,” said Arnold, who leads the Wildcats with three victories this spring. “I’m not too worried about getting all the strikeouts or the stats up, I’m just worried about getting that W at the end of the night. I know Jacob did a lot. I mean I’d been playing with him for two years before (this season) and his mentality was he didn’t care about the strikeouts, the walks or anything, just get the guys out. That’s the way I look at it.”
In three appearances this spring, all starts, Arnold is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA and he’s struck out 11 in 16 ⅓ innings. Walks have been an issue — he’s dealt 13 of them this spring and hit four batters — but the right-hander has given the Wildcats what they needed.
“All we can ask out of a starter is that he get us to the fifth inning and he’s done more than that. He’s taken the pressure off the lack of depth, really, and been really good,” Tierney said.
“He battles. He’s gotten in situations where he’s had baserunners but he’s gotten out of everything, out of all the jams. We’re just working on him working ahead in the count. Other than that we have no complaints about what he’s been doing. His pitch count gets a little up because of the walks, and if we can get that taken care of then he’s gonna be tough.”
Eliminating those walks, Arnold said, is just a matter of mindset. Sometimes he tries to throw too hard instead of focusing on throwing strikes.
Typically Arnold’s fastball tops out in the low 80s, he said, and he pairs that with a curveball and a changeup. While he said he uses all three pitches interchangeably, his out pitch is generally his “looping” curveball that creates a lot of swings and misses when it’s effective.
Perhaps just as important as Arnold’s pitch arsenal is the amount of playing experience he’s accumulated on the mound over the last three years. He pitched 19 innings at the varsity level as a freshman in 2017 and he was 2-2 with a 5.18 ERA last season.
“Honestly his experience has a good thing to do with it,” Ronnie Dodson said of Arnold’s success on the mound this spring. “He’s been up here since his ninth-grade year. He’s been working on his fastball but his changeup needs to hit more, his curveball needs to hit more, but we’re working on that. He’s been a little wild but he’s pulled through. His experience, he doesn’t let it get to his head.”
Dodson also praised Arnold’s ability to keep his teammates in line and to hold the Wildcats accountable, and Tierney called Arnold a “gym rat” with an unrelenting work ethic.
“He comes out and just wants to play baseball nonstop,” Tierney said. “He’s been great for the team. He’s a leader. I think this is his second year being a captain and he’s only a junior. All the players look up to him and respect him, and he does a good job with that, takes responsibility.”
Arnold’s leadership on and off the mound has helped the Wildcats open the season with a 6-1 record coming off a 2018 campaign in which they went 13-6 and reached the Region 3B tournament semifinals.
Warren County still has plenty of room for improvement — Arnold pointed out the need to cut back on the walks on the mound and the strikeouts at the plate — but they’re in a good spot entering Class 3 Northwestern District play on Tuesday against Brentsville, the team that ended the Wildcats’ season a win shy of a state tournament berth a year ago.
“We’re doing a lot of great things and we’ve just gotta keep it rolling,” Arnold said. “We’re playing our style of baseball, we’re playing how we wanna play. Not changing too much from last year or anything like that from the winning ways. We’re just doing us, is basically what it is.”