The hardthrowing Jackson, in his rookie year with the Dodgers, outdueled the Diamondbacks' Johnson with six innings of one-run ball to win his major-league debut on Sept. 9, 2003 -- Jackson's 20th birthday.
Defeating the Big Unit in his prime at such a young age was the most notable game of his career until Friday night when Jackson, now with Arizona, no-hit the Rays in a 1-0 win to join Johnson as the owners of the only two no-hitters in Diamondbacks history.
"It's definitely a great feeling," Jackson said by telephone from Tropicana Field. "It's almost unexplainable. I'm still trying to soak it in, to have a crazy game like that and have it finish up the way it did."
While Johnson was a five-time Cy Young winner who had thrown his first no-no 14 years before his perfect game with Arizona, Jackson took a far more unlikely path to completing a pitcher's greatest single-game accomplishment, already the fourth no-hitter of 2010 -- the sequel of 1968's Year of the Pitcher -- and the third such game against the Rays since July '09.
For starters, Jackson walked seven Rays in the first three innings, needing 68 pitches to record nine outs, and seem destined for an early clubhouse shower. The first Arizona reliever started warming up in the sixth inning. But with the Diamondbacks clinging to a one-run lead and history in the offing, manager A.J. Hinch kept allowing his 26-year-old fireballer to take the mound each inning, and Jackson allowed just three additional baserunners over the final six frames, via one walk, one hit batsman and one error.
"I didn't make any adjustments," he said. "It was just a matter of trying to find rhythm. The whole first three innings I was out of whack. Fortunately I was able to throw off-speed [pitches] for strikes, which pretty much preserved my stuff and help me stay in the game."
If there's a pitcher who can seamlessly bounce back from such an arduous performance, Jackson may well be that guy. Last year he averaged 105 pitches per start, which ranked 15th in the majors. He went higher than 110 pitches 12 times, including a 132-pitch outing while pitching eight innings in a victory over Texas last May 21 and showed no hangover from that outing. He made his next three starts on normal rest and went 2-1 with a 1.16 ERA, averaging 7 2/3 innings per outing.
Hinch and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre checked with Jackson before each of the final innings to see how tired he was, but the pitcher insisted he wasn't coming out until he gave up a hit and said he never considered the possibility that he would be too tired to finish.
"Nah, if you go out there with that approach, whether you're tired or not, you've already lost the battle," Jackson said. "You've got to just go out and play until you're out of there."
And for a strong-armed pitcher like Jackson, who routinely can dial his fastball up to the mid-90s even in the late innings of starts, he may not be worse for the wear, presuming Arizona treads cautiously with him. As Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the Ph.D. research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, has said pitchers don't injure themselves from one too many pitches. The biggest concern is when pitchers repeatedly throw too many pitches, without allowing proper rest in-between starts.
Thus, the smart move for the Diamondbacks, who are already 14.5 games out of first place and would need a miracle to contend for the playoffs this season, would be to give Jackson a few extra days before his next outing or skip that next start altogether.
Friday's no-hitter only continues the circuitous journey of Jackson's career. Born on an Army base in Neu-Ulm, Germany, the son of a military cook, he started playing baseball after he left the European country as an eight-year-old, taking up the outfield, like his namesake, Edwin (Duke) Snider. Jackson had no private pitching lessons in his youth and no real mechanics to speak of, while playing at Shaw High School in Columbus, Ga.
"It was high school," he recalled in an interview last August, "so anybody who has a strong arm has a chance to be on the mound."
Drafted by the Dodgers in the sixth round of the 2001 draft as an outfielder, Jackson batted .308 in 20 games of rookie ball, but the club decided there was more potential in his arm than his bat. When he arrived in Dodgertown in 2002, Jackson learned that the organization wanted to convert him to a pitcher, a switch he nonchalantly accepted.
"I came into spring training, and they had me on the pitchers' list," he said. "It wasn't a big deal."
After that sparking debut, Jackson's early years were marked by frequent journeys to and from the minor leagues. By learning to pitch in pro ball, his early struggles played out publicly and for four years Jackson never threw 40 major-league innings in a season and had a career 5.48 ERA.
"I was still learning in Triple A and the big leagues," he said. "It was tough but at the end of the day it made me a better pitcher, in learning how to deal with adversity."
After a trade to Tampa Bay, Jackson became a fulltime starter in 2007 but went 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA and nearly five walks per nine innings. In the Rays' charmed '08 season, Jackson also hit his stride as the fifth starter, improving his control somewhat and going 14-11 with a 4.42 ERA.
And then after his breakout year, he got traded. During the Dec. '08 phone call in which Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told Jackson he had been traded, Friedman thanked him for his contributions to the Rays but forgot one critical detail -- where Jackson had been dealt. Not wanting to pester a team executive, however, the ever-polite Jackson didn't call Friedman back.
"I could figure it out," explained Jackson, who later called his agent to learn where he'd be living and playing in the upcoming season.
The knock on Jackson, as seen again Friday night, has always been his control. In his first six big-league seasons, he averaged 4.5 walks per nine innings. In Detroit in '09 he worked with manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp, a foremost preacher on the importance of getting ahead in the count, and reduced that rate to 2.9. He went 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA and made the All-Star game. Then Jackson was traded again, this time to the Diamondbacks.
But what has never been an issue has been the strength of his throwing arm, which, of course, was the very reason Los Angeles converted him to a pitcher in the first time. For his career his fastball has averaged 94.1 miles per hour, reaching as high as 94.5 for the 2009 season, when it ranked fourth among all major-league starters. Though he sat in the 92-93 mph range in the late innings against Tampa Bay, he hit 96 on his first pitch to Hank Blalock with one out in the ninth inning.
"That's just God-given talent," Jackson said. "There's really no way to explain it. I've had no kind of special training. You can't really teach someone to throw hard."
Despite the heat, he's never been a true strikeout pitcher, averaging only 6.5 per nine innings because, as Knapp once explained, "Eddy doesn't throw a slow enough pitch [often] enough. Eddy's more of a fastball/slider guy, and he's simply going to mix in his changeup."
And so it was again on Friday that Jackson had only six strikeouts, to go along with 10 groundouts, eight flyouts, two lineouts and a runner caught stealing. What mattered is that he got 27 outs without allowing a hit, even if he walked eight batters, hit another one and threw a wild pitch. Then again, there's been little ordinary about Jackson's career, up to and including this no-hitter.
"Why ask why?" he said Friday night. "Just do what you can and be the best at what you're doing."
For a night at least, there was no one