Johnson, an undersized fireballer from Centralia, has assumed a starring role during Washington State’s determined bid to qualify for the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1990. The Cougars are second in the Pac-10 at 10-5 heading into an eight-game homestand that starts with a 5:30 p.m. contest Friday against Stanford.
After three straight years of arm injuries that left him contemplating whether he should give up the game he loves, the fourth-year junior has developed into one of the top closers on the West Coast. On Wednesday, Johnson was one of 50 players named to the “watch list” for The College Baseball Foundation Pitcher of the Year Award.
Johnson, who isn’t quite 5-foot-11 and weighs 185 pounds on a good day, is 4-1 with a 3.18 earned run average and six saves. After being limited to 24 games and 30 2/3 innings his first three years at WSU (including a redshirt season last year due to a stress fracture in his right forearm), Johnson has pitched 39 2/3 innings in 18 games with 42 strikeouts and just seven walks this season.
“He’s always calm, cool and collected out there,” senior catcher Greg Lagreid said. “He never gets over-emotional. He never lets his emotions show, whether things are going good or bad.”
Johnson looks more like an infielder than a pitcher -- he even wears a No. 4 jersey, which is quite uncommon for a pitcher -- but his fastball has been clocked as high as 95 mph. Unlike many closers, Johnson doesn’t turn into a frothing mad man when he takes the mound, but he throws hard and competes hard, and those are two qualities that coaches love to see in a closer.
“When there’s guys on base, I’m still confident that I have good enough stuff to get the guy out at the plate and they’re (base runners are) not going to get in,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a big deal, believing you have the stuff to beat the guy at the plate.”
Johnson had always been a starting pitcher until college and earned All-State honors for his handywork as a senior at Centralia. But at WSU, pitching coach Gregg Swenson envisioned Johnson as a closer from the moment he first saw him.
“He just had the demeanor,” Swenson said. “He had that mentality that you like at the (end) of games. You don’t get any sense of panic or anything. There’s always complete control of the situation.”
Marbut and Swenson say Johnson has the potential to be WSU’s No. 1 starting pitcher next year, and Johnson said he “absolutely” would like to start. However, Johnson sees his pro future in the bullpen, and the right-hander said he will consider turning pro this summer after he graduates next month with a degree in finance.
Johnson would be delighted to see his pro future delayed by an extended post-season run. The Cougars’ overall record is underwhelming at 21-18, but they’ve played what is rated the second-toughest schedule in the nation. And they’ve won six of their last eight games.
Perhaps more importantly, WSU is 13-3 at home with five straight wins. And 11 of the 15 games left on the schedule are set for Bailey-Brayton Field, including series’ with three teams (Stanford, Oregon and Washington) that have losing Pac-10 records.
“You like playing at home,” Marbut said. “Obviously, playing at home doesn’t guarantee you anything, but one thing we have tended to do is play better at home, and we’ve played better at the end of the year.
“We just have to play good baseball. Playing good baseball put you into this situation, so if you play good baseball, it helps keep you in that situation.”
Improved depth and pitching has been instrumental in WSU’s rise to second place behind Arizona State. It probably doesn’t hurt that the third-ranked Sun Devils -- who were No. 1 when the Cougars thumped ASU 10-4 last month in Tempe -- are the only Pac-10 team in Baseball America magazine’s Top 25 weekly poll.
The Pac-10 has long ranked at or near the top of college baseball. Four or five Pac-10 teams have qualified for the NCAA playoffs each year since the league’s old north and south divisions were abolished after the 1998 season, so the Cougars -- picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 in the preseason coaches poll -- are in good position to advance.
Marbut credits Swenson and recruiting coordinator-hitting coach Travis Jewett for their recruiting work. However, it was Marbut who stunned Johnson by offering him a scholarship before his senior year at Centralia High School.
“I was just planning to go to junior college,” said Johnson, who was a three-sport standout and honor student at Centralia.
Gonzaga and Portland later came calling, but Johnson was already set on the Cougars. Now that he’s healthy, Johnson has played a key role in lowering the team’s ERA to 4.48, easily WSU’s best mark since the Pac-10 halted divisional play.
“In the four years I’ve been here, this is our best pitching staff by far,” Johnson said.
Top starter Matt Way, a senior left-hander from the noted baseball hotbed (NOT!) of Sitka, Alaska, ranks 13th in the latest Division I statistics with 81 strikeouts, and he’s 16th in ERA at 2.14. Games through Sunday are included.
Way and Chad Arnold, a sophomore right-hander out of Kennewick’s Southridge High, lead the Cougars in wins. Way is 5-4, and Arnold is 5-2.
Redshirt freshman David Stilley from Silverdale’s Central Kitsap High has come back from “Tommy John” surgery to replace an elbow ligament in his left (pitching) arm and is 2-0 with a 2.91 ERA. Seth Harvey (0-1, 2.25), a junior out of River Ridge High in Lacey, has done a fine job as a set-up man since losing the closer job to Johnson early in the season.
Stilley has taken over for Jared Prince in the starting rotation, but Prince has been solid at the plate (.317, four homers, 22 RBIs) and in right field.
Prince, from Poulsbo’s North Kitsap High, is one of just three .300 hitters on the Cougars. All three, including Lagreid (.372-3-29) and first baseman-catcher Alex Burg (.355-7-34), have dealt with injuries as seniors. Two other seniors, second baseman Travis Coulter and pitcher Ross Humes, barely played this season before they were redshirted with injuries.
Lagreid, who attended O’Dea High in Seattle, is nursing a shoulder injury that has limited him to designated hitter duties of late. Marbut feared Burg was lost for the year after he banged up his left knee in a baserunning collision last weekend at USC, but Marbut learned Thursday morning that Burg may be back in two weeks.
Burg, who starred at Mount Rainier High in Des Moines, leads the Cougars with 34 RBIs, 10 doubles, three triples, 81 total bases, a .653 slugging percentage and a .477 on-base percentage. Burg’s absence makes it easier for teams to pitch around slugging freshman outfielder Derek Jones (.244-10-27) out of Snohomish High.
The Cougars have out-homered opponents 39-30, but WSU’s .281 team batting average is quite modest for a team playing on artificial turf with metal bats.
Marbut only wishes his players could use those bats to hack away at the athletic department’s mounting bills. Baseball is a relatively expensive sport for colleges, and Marbut would only say “no comment” when asked if he fears his program might face elimination at some point in the future given the economic environment and the lack of alumni donor support for athletics at WSU compared to other Pac-10 schools.
Athletic director Jim Sterk recently said the Cougars may be forced to drop one or more teams as soon as next year due to budget issues. Marbut said he hasn’t discussed the matter with Sterk. “There’s budget problems across the state of Washington,” Marbut noted. “Jim’s a great AD, and Jim will make the decisions that are best for Washington State.”
• The Cougars have lost only one conference series this season, to league-leader ASU.
• ESPN.com projects that two of the last five teams that will make the 64-team NCAA tourney will be WSU and Gonzaga. They’re picking only three Pac-10 teams for invitations – the others being ASU and Oregon State. ESPN slots the Cougs for the regional at Irvine, Calif., along with No. 3-ranked UC-Irvine, Manhattan and San Diego.
• Baseball America, meanwhile, forecasts four Pac-10 teams making the tournament: ASU, WSU, OSU and USC. They see the Cougs going to the regional in Norman, Okla., along with the Sooners, Oral Roberts and Minnesota.