April 22, 2011
By Shawn Sell
For UC pitcher Nick Johnson, the problem has never been ability. It's not velocity and it's not because he doesn't have a second pitch to complement his fastball. No, the one thing that has held the Delphos, Ohio native back during his Bearcat career is the health of his able right arm. And now in 2011, his senior year, Johnson is finding the success he longed for, thanks to a finally healthy pitching arm.
Coming out of Delphos St. John's High School, Johnson was a good get for the UC program. As a prep, Johnson won 17 games with a sparkling 1.43 ERA and was listed among the top-300 high school prospects in the entire nation. After a moderately successful freshman year, Johnson came back to throw just nine innings as a sophomore because of his bum arm. His junior year saw his innings count rise to 40, but the success still wasn't there. The roller coaster results have left UC head coach Brian Cleary scratching his head.
"He was a really frustrating guy for three years because you look at him and go, his stuff is great and you don't understand why he hasn't been more consistent or pitching better," Cleary says. "It has finally come around for him this year."
"Being healthy has been the biggest factor," Johnson adds. "My freshman year is when everything started to happen and I ended up having surgery. My junior year is when I actually started to perform because my arm started feeling better. That year was still kind of up and down. This year my arm feels fantastic and I think that's probably the biggest reason (for his 2011 success)."
During the 2010 season, Johnson showed some of the ability that garnered him so much attention as a high school player. Against a solid hitting West Virginia team on April 30th, Johnson was nothing short of brilliant, striking out 11 Mountaineer hitters over eight innings and allowing just a single unearned run. But just a week later, he was rocked to the tune of nine runs in two innings in a start at Connecticut as he continued to struggle with consistency.
As last season ended and the 2011 campaign moved towards its opening, Cleary was left wondering the best way to use his senior right-hander, who despite the injuries, was one of the most experienced hurlers on the roster.
"Going into this year, due to his inconsistency, he wasn't a guy that we felt like could pitch on Friday or Saturday," he says. "A couple of things have conspired to keep him out of the bullpen; one is his struggles in the past has been throwing strikes. You can't have a guy coming out of the pen that struggles to do that. Also, with how his arm felt, we really felt like we had to keep him on a set schedule. So really the only logical place to put him was as our Sunday starter."
With his role settled on as the third of the weekend starting trio following senior Dan Jensen and sophomore Andrew Strenge, Johnson struggled in first two starts of the year before really turning it on when the calendar hit March. In back-to-back starts against Youngstown State and Cleveland State, Johnson crafted a combined 12 scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and a walk, while striking out 13. Finally, the Bearcats were starting to see the results Johnson was capable of and the senior had found his niche, one he fully embraced.
"I try not to think about it too much because I don't want to put any extra pressure on myself that is unneeded," Johnson says of being the No. 3 starter. "It's hard enough to compete in the BIG EAST but trying to put more pressure on me can put me at a disadvantage. I just go out there and pitch like it's any other game and try not to think about it."
As the Bearcats' schedule changed from non-conference weekend match-ups to BIG EAST play, Johnson has continued to succeed in an often overlooked role as the Sunday starter. Entering this weekend's series with Villanova, Johnson has made four BIG EAST starts and holds a solid 3.33 ERA in conference action. While his record shows a mark of just 1-0, he has been far better then the numbers indicate. Less one bad start at Georgetown, Johnson has turned in two outstanding starts in what Cleary deemed "must-win games." On April 10th, Johnson stymied Louisville for eight shutout innings, before getting touched for a couple runs in the ninth. He ended up finishing with an eight strikeout complete game, helping UC avoid a sweep. He did more the same the next week against Rutgers, taking a no-decision in a seven-inning, 10 strikeout performance.
"I would argue there is nobody in the league that has a better Sunday starter than we do," Cleary says." Just the past two weekends as an example, we had lost the first two to Louisville and we felt like that was a must win and we felt the same at Rutgers. He has come up two weeks in a row where we certainly needed a great start and he has given it to us."
So when Johnson is on, as he has been so many times in 2011, what is it about his game that makes him so tough? Both he and his head coach have theories.
"If I can locate my fastball then I will more than likely have a good start," Johnson says. "There have been games where I am struggling to throw a fastball for a strike and I will get in trouble. If I can locate it in and out, then I can throw my curveball and it keeps people off-balance. If my change-up is working well too, that's just another thing hitters have to worry about."
"His stuff is really electric; he is 90-94 (with his fastball) and has a very powerful breaking ball," Cleary adds. "His change-up is still a work in progress but if he ever gets really comfortable with that, he will be that much more devastating. If you had to pick a flaw in his game, it's that he throws a lot of pitches. He goes deep in counts and he is not a pinpoint control guy. So often times he is in a deeper pitch count than we would like. His stuff is so good that when he is on, I don't think there are a lot of teams that can hit their way into a lot of runs against him."
With a pitching repertoire like that, it would be easy to think that Johnson dreams about the opportunity to play baseball professionally. But as much as he wants to chase that dream, he is trying to not to get too overhyped about the possibility.
"That has definitely always been a dream of mine," he admits. "I am just trying to do the best I can this year and see what happens. It would be fantastic if I could. I don't really want to get a job anytime soon; I'd like to make baseball a career for awhile. I get the letters from scouts and have gotten those since high school. I try not to really think about those because I don't want to get my hopes up and then get to Draft Day and nothing happens. I am just trying not to think about that until that day comes. If I get drafted great, if I don't, then I don't."
If it were up to Cleary, he certainly thinks his senior hurler has what it takes to play pro ball thanks in no small part to his 2011 success.
"He is a guy that since he has been in high school, the pro baseball community has evaluated because of his talent," he says. "But not until recently here did the talent match up with the performance and now those two things are really starting to come together."