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Staying back longer, Astros prospect Loftin turns his season around

Credit: Joe Dwyer, Fayetteville Woodpeckers
Credit: Joe Dwyer, Fayetteville Woodpeckers

A sixth-inning lineout opened the eyes of Jackson Loftin last month. Staying back longer on a 1-1 pitch from Down East Wood Ducks flamethrower Adrian Rodriguez on May 20, Loftin sliced a 104 mph line drive to left field, but he came out empty handed. JoJo Blackmon made a diving grab, robbing Loftin of what would have been his third hit in the series.

“I was like, ‘bam, that’s the swing I need to work on,'” Loftin said. “I was able to watch it back all weekend, or the rest of that day and the next day and just kind of be like, ‘well, what was different about that one than the rest?'”

The Houston Astros‘ 2022 13th-round pick found himself in an offensive rut up until that point, slashing .128/.226/.157 through his first 29 games of the season for Single-A Fayetteville. His offensive contributions lied heavily on the base paths, stealing 12 bases in 12 attempts.

Staying more on his backside though, Loftin felt he made 100 mph out of Rodriguez’s hand look slower. One out kickstarted an adjustment in Loftin’s approach, continuing a trend of hard-hit outs. He collected one more hit in the series, before turning his whole season around in the following weeks.

“Let’s try to watch that back and see what I really did there mechanically and put that into action this week,” Loftin said.

Since May 23, Loftin is slashing .293/.461/.517 across 18 games, drawing 15 walks to his nine strikeouts and hitting four doubles and three home runs. Prior to that first game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Loftin had not hit a home run in 2023. And amidst this streak of play, Loftin received a message from manager Ricky Rivera.

“Ricky, our manager, texted me, ‘hey, Sugar Land needs a guy for this week and maybe next week,'” Loftin said. “‘So we’re going to send you up there in the morning, and I’m not sure how much you’ll play or how much they’ll use you but just go out there and learn from the guys and enjoy your time.'”

Loftin started four games for the Space Cowboys.

Just when he found a groove offensively, the Astros shipped him three levels higher, where he didn’t flinch. Loftin went 5-for-13 with three doubles, two RBI and four walks to one strikeout. The biggest challenge in his professional career didn’t throw a wrench in his progressions.

“You just try to make it the same game,” Loftin said. “I’ve played this game for 20 years now. So the more simple you make it, the better you can have success.”

Noting a difference in play between the two levels, Loftin built confidence in himself for what the future holds for his professional career. And during his stay in Triple-A, he picked the brains of MLB-experienced players — Bligh Madris, Korey Lee, Joe Perez and Grae Kessinger — and others on the cusp of the next level — Luke Berryhill and Alex McKenna.

“They’re all super helpful,” Loftin said. “A lot of great guys. A lot of guys that were nicer to me than they needed to be per se.”

Loftin returned to Single-A this past week, hitting two home runs against the Carolina Mudcats to start the series. Loftin added six more stolen bases this week, bringing his season total to 22 on 23 attempts with his perfect streak coming to an end Saturday.

The speedy infielder wasn’t always a thief on the base paths though. Loftin didn’t find himself running much early on in his collegiate career, stealing just eight bases across three seasons at Sam Houston State. And it wasn’t until a summer swing in the Northwoods League that he tapped into a new potential.

In the summer of 2021, Loftin stole 49 bases on 59 attempts for the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders. He carried that into his final college season at Oral Roberts, where he swiped 25 bags in 30 tries.

“I’ve been able to tell a little bit more of an emphasis on being held on and pitchers being quicker to the plate,” said Loftin, who ranked fifth in stolen bases in the Carolina League as of Sunday.

Defensively, Loftin, who the Astros drafted as an infielder, picked up a new position in his first full season: center field. Following Roilan Machandy‘s injury two months ago, the duties of center field fell heavily into the lap of Zachary Cole. Needing another player in the mix, Rivera looked to Loftin, who he deemed “athletic enough” to play the position.

After two weeks of speaking with Astros player development, Rivera received the green light to pencil Loftin in for center field. The infielder has now started in eight games at the new position since May 3.

“It is obviously way different than playing the infield,” Loftin said. “I’m still still getting into it and still learning the intricacies of it, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.”

Through the ups and downs of his first full professional season, Loftin is riding the wave of his current hot streak. Even when it’s not going his way, his attitude stays the same.

“I’m playing professional baseball,” Loftin said. “I’m getting paid to play baseball, so I couldn’t ask for more.”

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