Pirates prospect Jones begins long road to majors

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JAMESTOWN, N.Y. -- JaCoby Jones brings his front leg up toward his chest and plants it forward. A baseball shoots off his bat into the humid air and heads out toward the hills that rest in the backdrop of Russell Diethrick Park. The ball travels more than 400 feet, headed toward dead center.

A man in the press box smirks and says, "A guy from Williamsport hit it over that fence -- once."

The ball falls into the center fielder's glove just shy of the wall. Sometimes, even the best hits don't result in bases or runs.

The next night, Jones, 21, suffered a season-ending knee injury just 15 games into his career with the Jamestown Jammers, the Pirates' short-season Class A affiliate. He was batting .311 and beginning to show why the Pirates drafted him in the third round, 87th overall, in June.

As Jones has learned before and will have to learn again: Nothing is guaranteed in baseball.

A stubborn phenom

Growing up in Richton, Miss., a town of 1,068, Jones never knew failure or anything close to it before college. At 6 feet 3, Jones is long, but not thin. He's thick, but not portly. He's built broad like a baseball player, everything about him, and his slight southern accent reflects where he came from.

He's the kind of player stories are built around. People talk about when they saw JaCoby Jones. Confidence is never at a shortage for the young man who has a billboard congratulating him in his home town and a girlfriend who is a model.

Start in the seventh grade, when Jones led his high school team in batting average.

"Everybody talked about [him]," his girlfriend, Jessica Carter, said. "He was the stud."

There's a substantial amount of pressure, however, that comes with being a star and three-time state champion in high school. Everybody in Richton expected greatness from Jones, and Jones expected it from himself.

In eighth grade, the University of Southern Mississippi started scouting Jones. One game they attended, Jones tried to make a diving stop in the field. The play was too ambitious. The ball bounced over Jones' glove, yet the runner was thrown out trying to stretch the play into a double. Still, Jones fumed. He meant to throw his glove into the dugout after the inning. Instead, the glove slipped off his hand and flew into the stands.

His high school coach, Brandon Davis, pinned Jones against the wall and gave him a lecture.

"He never said 'I'm sorry,' " Davis said. "He said 'I didn't mean to do it' because he wasn't sorry for it. He meant to throw it, just not over the dugout."

Jones' talent caught the eye of college and major league scouts. His hitting coach at LSU, Javi Sanchez, remembers recruiting Jones -- and the incredible athleticism he had.

"We see guys that can do it in the SEC, they're always easy to pick out amongst the other players," Sanchez said. "This kid was even better than those guys."

Slumping seasons

After winning three state championships in high school, Jones wasn't familiar with losing. Playing against Class AA Mississippi competition was simple for him. So perhaps that's why Jones said he struggled some his freshman year at LSU. At that point in his career, he had never known a true slump.

Jones hit .338 for the Tigers and was a freshman All-American. No freshman could call that year a struggle, except for a player like Jones who said he was used to hitting .500.

When a play didn't go his way, Jones continued his helmet-throwing and shoulder-slumping reactions.

"The best thing about him and the worst thing about him is the fact that he's competitive," Davis said. "He doesn't know how to idle back."

Things only got worse.

His sophomore year, Jones hit .253. His confidence waned. Jones was batting toward the bottom of the lineup, sometimes last. He believed people were questioning his ability. The MLB draft was also just one season away if he chose to declare early.

His junior season, the struggles worsened. His averaged dipped to .188 with two months left in the season. Jones started as a fan-favorite at LSU, known for his passion on the field and that competitiveness that often appeared in celebration after a big hit or defensive stop.

Now, his reputation was headed toward being a great athlete who could never harness his skills, a slump that never ended.

"I just think it was a lot of him feeling sorry for himself," Sanchez said.

'This is JaCoby Jones'

Jones knows the weekend he became himself again.

While working with LSU assistant Blake Dean at a Wednesday practice, Jones brought back a timing mechanism from his high school days. It's a kick with his front leg at the beginning of his swing. At baseball's highest levels, a pre-swing movement as big as Jones' can be troublesome. LSU wanted Jones' motion to be as quick and simple as possible.

"I was doing terrible," Jones said. "So I was like, 'Screw it. I'm gonna do whatever I want.' "

The leg kick returned April 5 against Kentucky. That weekend, the Tigers swept Kentucky and Jones went 8 for 13.

The Tigers' success continued with the help of Jones from that weekend forward. In the NCAA super regionals, the day after the Pirates selected him in the draft, LSU played Oklahoma and third overall pick pitcher Jonathan Gray.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with no score, Jones fell behind in the count, 0-2. Despite strikeout issues in his past, Jones took a big cut. Seconds later, he was sliding into third for a triple. The next at-bat resulted in a tiebreaking double. Jones crossed home plate, screaming at Gray. It was the kind of emotion LSU fans loved about Jones, and the Tigers won, 2-0.

"He was the MVP of that super regional," Sanchez said.

It was a bit of welcomed nostalgia for his girlfriend, too.

"That's when you just have to say, 'Everyone, this is JaCoby Jones,' " Carter said.

No guarantees

Sitting on a blue bench in a 72-year-old ballpark, Jones shares his story. His sentences are brief. For someone so confident, he stays guarded.

He knows the questions about his prolonged slump are coming. He doesn't go into much detail about his past frustrations. After all, he overcame those struggles. Surely he knew more challenges would come, perhaps he just didn't know how soon.

Before his season-ending injury, Jones was playing shortstop and center field for Jamestown. Jammers hitting coach Kory DeHaan, who played for the San Diego Padres from 2000-02, had talked to Jones about "controlling his competitive reactions" and it seemed to be working.

"Right now, it's a completely raw diamond that needs polishing," Jamestown manager Dave Turgeon said. "The talent level and skill set is significant."

The knee injury came in a collision at home plate. Jones even played another half-inning in center before leaving the game.

Davis, who in addition to coaching him in high school is also Jones' pastor, found it unusual he didn't immediately hear back from his former star at Richton after texting him last Monday, two days after the injury.

"He's probably so mad, he can't breathe," Davis said.

Davis heard back from Jones that afternoon and asked why Jones hadn't responded to him.

"I was kind of freaked out," Jones told him.

Jones didn't and still doesn't know what his future holds. Rehabilitation on his knee, yes. But there are no guarantees in baseball. Not a 400-foot, towering smack of a ball. Not a player who always hit .500 in high school. And neither is returning from an injury.

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Mike Vernon: mvernon@post-gazette.com or Twitter @m_vernon. First Published July 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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