Los Alamitos product Jacob Nix of the Padres looks to move on from doggie door episode
Padres pitcher Jacob Nix missed the past two seasons because of injuries, the pandemic and one drunken decision that resulted in an arrest.
The phone buzzed unnoticed inside a gym bag while Jacob Nix was warming up a couple hundred feet away.
When he returned to the dugout at the Fullerton field where he was working out with a half-dozen other professional pitchers and catchers on a recent Tuesday morning, Nix saw he had missed a call.
“Interesting,” the former Los Alamitos pitcher said as he held his phone.
It was far more than that. This, he knew, had to be the call he was waiting for. The one he had long expected and the one he had from time to time considered might never come.
I’m going to make it back. That is what he almost always believed.
Am I going to be buried? That is what he sometimes feared.
There is a long time to wonder when a man sits out most of one baseball season while rehabilitating an elbow injury, gets exiled following a drunken escapade through a doggie door and then sits much of the next season due to the onset of a pandemic.
After hearing the voicemail, Nix called back Padres General Manager A.J. Preller for confirmation that, yes, he was invited to major league camp.
Then the pitcher who way back in 2018 was part of the Padres’ first wave of highly touted prospects to debut in the big leagues took the mound to throw a live batting practice and looked like a pitcher the Padres would hardly recognize when they saw him again.
Nix has been waiting to tell this story.
He has the picture ready. It’s a screenshot he took after the fog had cleared from his head and bail had been posted and he was out of the orange jumpsuit.
“It’s been a long time,” Nix said. “We haven’t had that happy ending where we can talk about it.”
On a Saturday night in early October of 2019, not long after he had arrived to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, Nix went out in Scottsdale with a group of teammates from the Peoria Javelinas.
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He was staying at a house owned by Eric Lauer, at the time a Padres pitcher, and at night’s end, by now early Sunday morning, Nix typed in the home’s address as he ordered an Uber for himself and Padres minor leaguer Tom Cosgrove. But in a cruel twist owing as much to the Phoenix area’s grid street system as to the fact Nix was, in his word, “tanked,” he did not notice that two nearly identical addresses showed up in his menu of choices. Same house number, identical street name, different zip code, a little more than a mile from each other.
Nix selected the wrong one.
After a lengthy ride across the Valley, the intoxicated passengers awoke to the Uber driver announcing they had arrived at their destination.
When an attempt to unlock the home’s front door failed, Nix figured he had mistakenly brought his apartment key from San Diego. He made a mental note to mail the key to his landlord as he went around toward the rear of the house to search for a way in.
He noticed a doggie door in the lower portion of a side door. Lauer did not have a dog. Nix had not previously noticed a doggie door. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. This is the seamless logic of a person who has ingested a certain number of alcoholic beverages.
Nix got down on the ground and reached through and up in an attempt to unlock the door.
Before he could reach the knob, he was being pulled into the house through the doggie door. With his arm and head inside the house, he was suddenly being kicked across the face repeatedly. His arm was stepped on.
After a few moments, having heard the homeowner calling for his wife to get his gun, Nix found himself being yanked by his belt back into the yard. Cosgrove was yelling for them to go.
“Because, ‘Hey, this isn’t our house,’ ” Nix recalled. “We had figured that out now.”
As Nix and Cosgrove began running for the street, Nix was struck on the side by a taser fired by the homeowner, an off-duty police officer. The man’s wife had been unable to remove his pistol from its holster.
“I’m lucky she couldn’t get it out, or I would have been dead,” Nix said. “This guy had every right to kill me, but he didn’t.”
Nix would spend almost 48 hours in jail. Didn’t eat, didn’t brush his teeth. He believes he was concussed from the beating. He would find out weeks later his wrist had been broken.
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He returned home to Los Alamitos, where virtually everyone knew him. Ashamed, he stopped going out even to the store. He eventually moved.
The Padres designated him for assignment Nov. 11, removing him from the 40-man roster and essentially opening the door for him to slide into the pantheon of those who almost made it but screwed it up.
Or he could show his will.
He could be the guy who, in the end, when success has been achieved after a long and winding road, retrospection makes it clear that seemingly too-long path was the only possible one.
“As cliché as it is, I’ve been on this mission for two years,” Nix said last week. “As frustrated as I was not playing, it’s so cliché, but everything does happen for a reason. It’s true. I’m super thankful.”
An honest man looks back at his 22-year-old self and understands where he was on the spectrum.
There is the rare 22-year-old male who is trending toward self-actualization, sure. Most are somewhere between stuck in adolescence and being a complete jerkface.
Nix was 22 when he made his major league debut on Aug. 10, 2018. He threw six scoreless innings against the Phillies that night. He was awful in his next start, OK in the next one and then allowed one run on eight hits over 8 1/3 innings against the Mariners.
He would post a 9.67 ERA over his final five starts.
“Mixed results, for sure,” Nix said.
As much as he was in-between pitches, overly reliant on his change-up and unable to effectively spin his curveball, Nix wasn’t right mentally either.
“I was very 22,” he said.
He got “complacent.” His word.
“I’m grateful to have been called up when I was, but I wasn’t ready,” he said. “I know that now.”
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To some extent, he assumed he had arrived before he had really arrived.
“I got fat and out of shape,” he said. “I wasn’t working out very hard. Even when I went to the gym, I was mopey and I didn’t want to do (stuff). I got too comfortable. I’d had some success. … I enjoyed it too much.”
He was around 235 pounds in 2018 and almost 250 in the spring of ’19. He’s been holding at 212 for some time now.
“I had to grow up,” he said. “I feel like I’m finally at the point where I got that (expletive) out of me. … Everybody gets to the big leagues and you want to be that guy. I don’t give a (expletive) about that anymore. I care (being) out there (pitching). I had it. I got it taken away.”
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At the time of his arrest, Nix was taking an anti-depressant and medication for attention deficit disorder. He says he rarely drank.
He was in pain. He was frustrated.
He hadn’t pitched in the majors since the end of the 2018 season and had thrown just 24 innings in the minor leagues in ’19.
He was shut down near the end of spring training that year with a UCL tear. He opted for platelet-rich plasma therapy instead of surgery and did not pitch for three months. He returned in late July, throwing twice in the Arizona Rookie League and twice in Single-A before making two Triple-A starts, in which he allowed one run in 11 innings. He also started twice in the Double-A playoffs.
He wasn’t called up to the majors, however, and was then assigned to the Fall League.
All the while, though his elbow felt fine, other parts of his body (primarily his throwing shoulder) screamed with almost every pitch.
He’d had a late start before spring training in ’19 following adductor surgery in November of ’18 and a prolonged healing of the wound. His hips and pelvis, he has since learned, were out of alignment. At the time, he was beginning to figure “this is my new normal; this is how I feel now.”
Along with court-ordered alcohol counseling, Nix last year began seeing a physical therapist in Pasadena — a 100-mile roundtrip and at $300 an hour — who focused on postural restoration after diagnosing him with a winged scapula (an abnormal protruding of the shoulder blades).
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“A lot of my (problem) was my hips were bad for so long,” Nix said. “Once those go, everything goes. … Everything in baseball is rotational. If (posture) is messed up, nothing is going to be right. There was a lot of pressure on my shoulder.”
Nix now spends about an hour stretching and getting himself aligned before throwing and/or at night before bed.
“It’s been a good year to figure out a good routine that works for me,” he said.
He did it while throwing off a makeshift mound in his not-quite-large-enough backyard. He did it between coaching high school and junior college players. He did it while having to gratefully settle sometimes for a high school freshman as a catcher.
With input from multiple pitching coaches around the country, who he said he would reach out to via Instagram, he has also made some mechanical changes, focusing on working more downhill. Watching his delivery in a recent workout, he is clearly lower than in 2018.
He is, practically, a new pitcher.
During a 40-pitch session last week, with batters from Hope International University mostly walking away shaking their heads after trying to hit against him, Nix’s fastball sat between 95 and 97 mph, a good 2-4 mph faster than his average in ’18.
His change-up tailed down and away from left-handed hitters as well as ever, the slider the Padres had wanted him to focus on a couple years ago was darting away from righties and averaged around 85 mph, up about 4 mph from 2018. And perhaps even more striking than the velocity uptick was a 12-to-6 curveball that has forsaken its loop and now dives sharp and tight.
“My (expletive) is way better,” he said. “… “It’s been a blessing. I have a lot of (stuff) to prove to myself and a lot of people. I wasn’t happy with my results when I was there. I’m in a way better place — physically, mentally, everything to go out there and stay healthy.”
Eye on a role
After throwing those 40-some pitches, Nix declared he could do it again the next day.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I do not get sore. Everything is firing properly.”
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He would prefer no one got too enamored with his possessing that kind of resilience.
“My goal is and has always been a rotation spot,” Nix said. “That’s not changing for me. I understand there is traffic, but I am coming for a job.”
He knows this isn’t 2018. The Padres are no longer the kind of team that gives chances to pitchers simply because they can.
Manager Jayce Tingler and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have seen video of Nix. At least one member of the front office watched him pitch in person recently. The thinking is Nix can possibly fit as a swing man out of the bullpen.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Nix said when asked about a possible bullpen role. “But I’m not satisfied with that. … I’m not coming for a bullpen spot. I want to start. I have four ‘plus’ pitches.”
He knows what happened this offseason, that the Padres acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell and presumably made their rotation not only full but the kind that can win big series. But a man doesn’t make the majors at 22, sit out two years, wonder if he blew his chance and has been left for dead, work his way back and not think he can contribute to that kind of group.
“It sucks for me because obviously I want to start,” he said. “Those are proven big-league starters. I’m not proven. I get it. But again, I’m coming for (a job).”
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