Jakubauskas persevered to meet ultimate goal
Orioles right-hander navigated unlikely path to the Major Leagues
BALTIMORE -- There wasn't much reason for Chris Jakubauskas to be smiling Friday night.
The Orioles right-hander had received a no-decision after lasting five innings, giving up three earned runs on five hits with three walks against Cincinnati. In four starts with Baltimore this season, he hasn't pitched deeper than 5 1/3 innings.
"I'd love to see what the sixth inning seems like," he jokingly said following Friday's game.
But this was just Jakubauskas being himself -- a self-admitted "goofball" whose passion for baseball allowed him to reach the Major Leagues. And the undrafted 32-year-old's outing was the latest manifestation of a lifetime of believing in himself when hardly anybody else would.
Jakubauskas is the only Orioles starter to have not been drafted, and he's also the oldest in the rotation.
"It's just an unbelievable story," said Bobby Sheridan, Jakubauskas' coach at Damien High School in La Verne, Calif. "The guy could have said so many times, 'I'm just going to go in another direction,' but he never took it in a different direction. He just loves baseball."
- 131 wins
- 121 wins
Finishing his high school career on a high note, the Anaheim, Calif., native had aspirations of playing college ball for powerhouse Cal State Fullerton.
But the scholarship letters never came.
After a failed walk-on attempt at Fullerton, Jakubauskas would play at Citrus (Junior) College, Santa Clara and the University of Oklahoma. He would remain undrafted after college.
"I knew if somebody would just pull the trigger, I knew I could get there," said Jakubauskas of giving him a chance to be signed. "I had seen guys get to the big leagues who I played with, and it was sort of like, 'If he can get there, I want to get there.' You talk to guys in the big leagues and it's like, 'How fun is this?' Why wouldn't you want to strive for that?"
After being used as a left-handed power hitter at Oklahoma, Jakubauskas realized his pitching arm might be his ticket to the big leagues.
The left-handed batter-turned right-handed pitcher began playing in independent baseball leagues in 2003, both batting and pitching until '05, when he underwent Tommy John surgery. After the procedure, Jakubauskas would be converted to a full-time starter.
"I knew I could still play," said Jakubauskas. "But to be honest, with a 9-to-5 [job], there was no chance. I don't want to work 9-to-5."
Then on June 13, 2007, after three years of independent baseball with three different teams, the Mariners did something that Cal State Fullerton never did -- give Jakubauskas a chance.
"I don't want to say it's a lot of luck, but it probably is, when you're signed at 28 and a lot of guys are [already] four years in at 28 to affiliate ball," Jakubauskas said. "But that's just who I am. I started playing for fun, and that's when it clicked for me. I started in 2005, just playing with guys I knew, guys I went to college with and independent ball, and that's when it started to click. I just stopped worrying about trying to impress people and just trying to win games."
Jakubauskas would go up and down the Mariners' farm system in 2008, when Class Triple-A Tacoma manager Daren Brown saw something special in the right-hander, who compiled a 2.59 ERA in nine starts.
"[Jakubauskas] didn't throw 95, 96 [mph] and light the radar guns up, but he knew how to use what he had to get hitters out," Brown said. "He's got a lot of confidence in himself, and nobody is going to tell him 'No.' When he takes the ball and heads out onto the mound, it's in his hands and he does what he can do. The biggest thing about him is the competitive nature that he has."
Despite sharing a Dec. 22 birthday, Jakubauskas and Orioles starter Zach Britton have been on different schedules their entire lives.
The rookie southpaw was 23 years old when he made his Major League debut this April 3. Jakubauskas' debut with the Mariners came on April 8, 2009, at the age of 30.
"I think more than anything, [Jakubauskas] viewed himself as a 20-, 21-year-old pitcher," said Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair, who was Jakubauskas' pitching coach in Seattle as well. "He's still a young arm and he hasn't pitched a whole lot, so he's basically a young pitcher. He knows the odds are against him of having a great and long career, but he just shows up every day to learn and grow. He enjoys it."
In 35 appearances with the Mariners in 2009, including eight starts, Jakubauskas finished with a 6-7 record and a 5.32 ERA, with a 1.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It would not be good enough for the ball club to keep him, but Pittsburgh claimed the hurler off waivers on Nov. 20, 2009, and put him to work through its Minor League system.
The journeyman pitcher was ready to start anew in his Pirates debut on April 24, 2010, in Houston.
The right-hander retired two of the first four Astros batters he faced, with Lance Berkman coming up to bat.
With a 1-0 count, Jakubauskas delivered his next pitch to the five-time All-Star. Berkman hit a line drive that struck Jakubauskas in the head near his right ear, giving him a concussion and head contusion. After hitting the wounded starter, the ball still had enough speed to roll all the way back to the Pittsburgh catcher.
"If that ball is three inches one way, I'm done," Jakubauskas said. "If it's down three inches, my face is blown up. If that's three inches towards my temple, I'm toasted, dying on the field. If I don't flinch a little bit, my parents might have watched me die right there. It's one of those things that if it was my time, it was my time. It's not my time."
Berkman immediately rushed to join the Pirates infield, which had gathered on the pitcher's mound as team physicians examined Jakubauskas.
"It was just scary," Berkman said. "Any time something like that happens, you kind of feel responsible for it, even though clearly it's an accident -- you're never trying to hit anybody, much less a guy in the head, so I just remember thinking the worst. It was really a scary deal."
As Jakubauskas was carted off the field, he gave a thumbs up to the crowd. He was transported to Methodist Hospital, where Berkman would visit him later that day. The two will have the opportunity to meet for the first time since the accident Tuesday, when the Cardinals come to Camden Yards.
The Pirates would place Jakubauskas on the 15-day disabled list, and then release him on Nov. 4, 2010, nearly five months after he suffered the concussion.
Since high school, Jakubauskas has played for 15 different teams -- the Orioles, who signed the right-hander as a free agent on Feb. 1, the most recent. Since being recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on May 29, Jakubauskas has made spot starts in his last four outings, compiling a 2-0 record and 4.03 ERA.
Jakubauskas is likely to make his next start Wednesday, against Berkman and St. Louis.
"I don't know why nothing has ever been handed to him," Sheridan said. "I guess that's just his path. He's always had to be challenged and always had to reach deep in order to be at his best. He just has this vision of what's going to happen and tries to make it a reality. He never believes it's not going to happen."
But Sheridan knows exactly how Jakubauskas' story should be told.
"Obviously [being] undrafted, even after being successful in different places, that tells you that pure talent and pure speculation from scouts who get paid to look at talent -- with this guy [Jakubauskas], it is not about talent," Sheridan said. "Yeah, he has talent, we know that. But this story is not about talent -- it wasn't just gushing out of him towards scholarships and Draft picks. The real story about this guy is his mental toughness and his mental resolve. That is the story of Chris Jakubauskas."
Avi Zaleon is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.