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Turner performs under pressure

5/15/2009

Jacob Turner thrives in pressure situations. So pitching in a nationally televised All-American game against a lineup featuring many of the nation's top baseball players couldn't rattle him.

Or could it?

As Turner toed the rubber at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as the starting pitcher for the West squad in last summer's Aflac All-American High School Baseball Game, nerves suddenly grabbed hold. The thought of pitching at the historic venue got to him, and the fact that he didn't find out he'd be the starter until 30 minutes before the game didn't help matters.

What happened next was predictable. Turner plunked the first batter he faced and then walked the No. 2 hitter. Only a few minutes into his outing, disaster loomed as
runners stood on first and second with nobody out.
That's when the real Jacob Turner showed up.
Next batter? Caught looking. Here comes the cleanup hitter. Take a seat, swinging. OK, this is the East's last chance to capitalize. Surely the No. 5 hitter will come through. Nope, frozen like he saw Jessica Alba as he watched strike three go by.

Three consecutive strikeouts allowed the Westminster Christian (St. Louis) senior to escape the jam. And he didn't stop there. He fanned the first two batters of the second before allowing a single and then inducing an inning-ending flyout.
In two innings of work, Turner tied an Aflac All-American Game record with five strikeouts. But more important, he didn't allow a run.

"He always finds a way to step up in the moment," says his brother, Ben, a former Westminster Christian All-State catcher who now plays at Missouri.

"I was just determined to not let anyone score,"
Turner adds.

Of course, whenever Turner is pitching, runs are hard to come by. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound right-hander is the No. 10 MLB prospect in Keith Law's latest rankings and has signed with college baseball powerhouse North Carolina.

Besides dominating at Aflac, Turner shined for the silver medal-winning USA Baseball 18U National Team last
summer at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton, Canada. He tied for the team lead with 19 strikeouts in
10.1 innings and fanned 12 batters in a semifinal win
over Australia.

Turner is able to dominate with an arsenal featuring a high-octane fastball that tops out at 95 mph and
consistently sits in the low 90s. Mix in a filthy curve and a deceiving changeup and he's flat-out intimidating. No
wonder scouts from every major league team came to watch him pitch in a local showcase in January.

"He's the best I've coached because of his combination of maturity, aptitude level and talent," says Turner's summer league and personal pitching coach, Jerry Daniels, who has worked with multiple first-round draft picks.

Turner began displaying his enormous potential as a freshman at Westminster Christian when he worked out of the bullpen and went 5-0 with a 1.84 ERA, two saves and 37 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. Whenever the Wildcats needed a big out in the late innings, Turner was the guy.

"I was expecting something pretty awesome, and he didn't disappoint," says Westminster Christian 25th-year head coach Rich Van Gilst.

As a sophomore, Turner earned a spot in the starting rotation and went 6-2 with a 1.10 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 38 innings. He allowed only 19 hits the whole season to pick up All-State honors. Also a first baseman, Turner clubbed 10 homers with 40 RBIs to help Westminster
Christian reach the Class 3 state semifinals, where the
Wildcats fell to eventual state champion Benton.

Turner enjoyed considerable success on the hill the past three seasons thanks in part to the help of his brother, Ben, who caught all of Jacob's starts. To say the pair worked well together is an understatement. Last season, it seemed like everything clicked as Jacob went 5-2 with a 1.45 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.

Ben also keeps Jacob grounded. During an intrasquad scrimmage his sophomore year, Jacob fanned the first eight batters he faced. Before the ninth guy came to the plate, Van Gilst wondered aloud if anyone could get a hit off Jacob, at which point Ben threw off his catcher's gear and dug in at the dish.

The count went to 3-2 before Jacob got a little cocky and told Ben he was throwing him a fastball. Ben roped the pitch into left field for a single. "If there's one pitch I definitely want back, that would definitely be the one," says Jacob, laughing.

It doesn't matter if it's his brother or a fierce rival, Turner won't back down.

"I think nobody is going to beat me and nobody is going to outwork me," he says. "I look calm, but I'm thinking, 'It's my mound. It's my plate. If you're going to get a hit once, you're not going to get one a second time.'"
Off the field, Turner tries to avoid the spotlight and
generally doesn't like talking about baseball if he's not
playing. While he loves the sport, it takes a backseat to his faith. He goes to church and Bible study every Sunday and meets with a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group
twice a month.

His faith has helped him stay even-keeled under
pressure, but his composure will be tested this spring as scouts evaluate his every pitch and fans pepper him
with questions about the draft. But Turner doesn't sound too concerned.

"It doesn't really bother me," he says. "The draft is pretty much a crapshoot. To say I don't think about it would be a lie, but I'm so excited to be going to the University of North Carolina next year. That's the one thing I'm guaranteed. If the time were to come, I'd be honored to even have that decision to make."

It'll be a lot of pressure, but Turner has proved that's when he's at his best.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.