NOW that the Columbus East baseball team has compiled a 9-4 record and is headed toward some very big games in the second half of the season, Olympians pitching coach Justin Denny is glad he has his closer in place.
“As a closer, you have to block out the pressure,” said
Denny, who was a closer at DePauw University. “You have to concentrate on throwing one pitch at a time, and you have to make sure one pitch doesn’t affect the next.”
But could Denny be talking about junior Jordan Johnson?
“He’s our guy,” Denny said.
Indeed, Johnson has followed the transformation that many juniors experience after coming off their sophomore year of high school: He matured.
“I am taking things more seriously,” Johnson said Monday after practice. “Instead of being a goofball that people can’t rely on, I think people can trust me.”
Johnson, who has four saves and a 1.31 ERA, learned that hard work leads to success, and that ultimately is a lot of fun.
“Last year, I messed around a lot,” he said. “But I’ve matured a lot. It just means I am being serious at practice.”
With hard work has come more strength, and that has led to additional speed on his fastball.
He didn’t pitch much for East his freshman and sophomore seasons, but that has changed.
“It’s a big surprise,” he said, even though he was a pitcher through most of his youth baseball days.
Denny and East head coach Jon Gratz knew Johnson had pitching ability, but they were concerned about his mechanics. They were worried he would injure his arm or shoulder.
“He can throw 20 pitches five days a week or 80 pitches once every two weeks,” Denny said. “That’s just how he is built. He’s always had a live arm.
“He just needs to keep working on his mechanics.”
Johnson said he had a sore elbow last season and, in trying to compensate, he put more pressure on his shoulder. His arm feels better this season, and he said he wouldn’t be opposed to starting if asked.
Gratz likes his role on this season’s team.
“He’s got that closer mentality,” Gratz said. “And we’ve always told him he has a lot of talent.”
Only giving up one unearned run this season, Johnson has seven strikeouts and no walks.
In a 3-0 victory April 4 at Seymour, Johnson came into the game in a bases-loaded, two-out situation.
“I threw three straight balls,” he said. “I thought I would blow it by him.”
Fortunately, he came back with three pitches in the strike zone, inducing the hitter to ground out to first.
East catcher Christian Wichman said Johnson probably throws in the mid to upper 80s, but sometimes he tends to pump up his speed more than others.
“I think it is adrenalin and mental focus,” Wichman said.
Wichman is just one of Johnson’s teammates who is glad Johnson is starting to live up to his potential.
“We’ve had talks about it,” Wichman said.
Now the Olympians can rely on him.
“I like having the pressure,” Johnson said. “I love it.”
Johnson isn’t going to fool hitters. “The fastball is pretty much what I do,” he said. “I also throw a change-up, but (starting pitcher) Peyton Gray makes fun of my curve.
“I did throw one in the last game.”
Denny and Gratz both laughed when asked if Johnson has a curve. “He does now,” they said together.
When the 5-foot-11 Johnson isn’t pitching, he likely is playing the outfield. He is hitting .321, the second-best batting average on the team. That is about 90 points higher than last season.
“He is one of the fastest kids on the team, he can hit for power, and he can hit for average,” Denny said. “I told him, ‘This is going to be your year to open some eyes.’”
Johnson is hoping he can do just that.
“I would love to play college baseball,” he said. “If I keep taking things serious, that’s possible.”
First things first, though, and East has shown it can be a contender.
“We are doing a lot better than last year,” Johnson said. “We have a ton of talent.”