Yes, Jackson won his first start of the season on Saturday against the Yankees, but the imagery of the first half of 2007 lingered. The hard-throwing right-hander did not win his first game until June 24 against the Dodgers, a decision that came after dropping his first eight decisions while posting an 8.20 ERA to that point. So it's understandable if disbelieving Rays fans took a second look at Jackson's line on Thursday that showed no runs on two hits and four walks in eight innings of work.
"He had us off-balance all day," Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "Good movement to his fastball. Velocity was decent. At times, he would get up to the upper 90s. His key always has been his command. He walked a few guys, but it didn't hurt him. We didn't square up very many balls. I am going to give him all the credit.
"He has good stuff and when his command is on, he's good, he's tough. We faced him last year and he was wild. He also got his changeup over, which is big when you throw that hard."
Jackson pitched so well that the crowd of 11,898 booed when Trever Miller came in to pitch the ninth.
"We've lost the last four games -- my main emphasis of today was coming up, picking the team up and getting us to where we should be," Jackson said. "It was definitely a lot of pressure. Don't get me wrong, we lost four in a row, and that's coming from a pretty good road series. It was definitely good to get things jump started in a positive direction -- get the ball rolling where it should be."
In addition to picking up the win, Jackson also gave the bullpen, save for Miller, a much needed rest.
"I've done my share of killing the bullpen, so it's time to pick them up," Jackson said.
But it wasn't just the bullpen that Jackson gave a lift on Thursday.
"You know what, E.J., what a great performance he put on today," Carlos Pena said. "Wow. In fact, that's how we know he's capable of doing it on a consistent basis. That's what he's all about. That was an amazing pitching performance today. He gave [the hitters] a real lift."
While Jackson kept the Mariners off balance for the most part, he did get some help in the field.
Carl Crawford made a diving catch of Jose Vidro's liner to end the Mariners' fourth inning with a runner stranded on third.
"That was a good play," said Mariners manager John McLaren, who once served on the Rays' coaching staff. "[Crawford's] fearless out there. He sacrifices his body all the time. He plays baseball old-school all the way. He has terrific athletic ability and great speed. It was a big play."
Add to Crawford's heroics the combination of Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura and Pena, a trio which accounted for two double plays. And slowly, but surely, the offense came around.
Eric Hinske started the scoring in the fourth with a solo home run off Mariners starter Miguel Batista. Mike DiFelice recorded the first of his three RBIs on the day with a single to drive home Jonny Gomes in the sixth to put the Rays up 2-0. The backup catcher added two more RBIs with a two-run single in the five-run seventh to help salt away the game.
"I thought we swung the bats great today," Pena said. "We broke out there at the end. We got some big hits, B.J., the homer by Hinske, DiFelice, big two-out knock. It takes the wind out of the other team. It really does. And with E.J. pitching, that was a wrap."
One can't minimize the significance of halting a four-game losing streak, but perhaps even more important is the fact Jackson is winning over believers in the clubhouse.
"In baseball, momentum is a huge thing," Pena said. "When you get something positive going like today, you remember that the next time he goes to the mound. And we'll be even more confident. So it just grows. Just keep on building on top of that. So today definitely was a plus."