Jeff Johnson is searching for a motto.
The closer for the Cal Poly baseball team has put up unparalleled numbers to start the 2011 season: a 0.74 ERA, 13 hits, two runs and 35 strikeouts over 24 1/3 innings — numbers that could put Johnson in prime position to be drafted into professional baseball.
But the San Francisco Giants fan from Dodgers country does not have a Brian Wilson “Fear the Beard”-like credo.
“I might have to get a mullet going or something, bring that in,” Johnson said. “It would definitely distract the batter quite a bit.”
Joking aside, with a two-pitch combination of fastball and splitter, Johnson clocks his pitches in the mid-90s and baffles batters at the plate. The newfound velocity is a development head coach Larry Lee said was the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011, and the results back him up.
Johnson has yet to take a loss, and recorded four saves while instilling confidence in his team. Shortstop Mike Miller said Johnson’s “domination” gives the rest of the team a feeling that any lead going into the eighth inning is not just safe, it’s “Jeff Johnson-ensured.”
“We ride with him in the late innings and he feeds off that,” Miller said. “He loves that competition and the adrenaline he gets going into the eighth, ninth innings.”
But much of Johnson’s success boils down, in part, to Lee’s coaching. Without the veteran coach, Johnson might have ended up pitching against the Mustangs and for the rival Gauchos. UC Santa Barbara was Johnson’s school of choice until Lee picked up the phone and gave him a call.
“(Lee) said it was only fair to yourself to give another school a chance,” Johnson said. “So I said ‘All right.’ He showed me (around campus) and I just loved it.”
The campus visit moved Johnson’s college destination 90 miles north, but it very well might have changed the trajectory of his career. In an era where phenoms are drafted into the pros during high school, Johnson barely talked to a scout coming out of Thousand Oaks High School.
Looking back, he admits he was not ready.
“At that age I wasn’t thinking about going pro,” he said. “I was just having fun and I didn’t really want to get drafted. It wasn’t really my scene at that age. But now it’s different.”
Even a year ago, a future in professional baseball might have been far-fetched. Johnson’s rise was hardly a done deal even once he began playing for the Mustangs. Upon arrival in San Luis Obispo, Johnson was greeted with time as a starting pitcher for a depleted Mustang squad — time that allowed him to get roughed up, but more importantly gain experience.
As his freshman season concluded, Lee recognized Johnson had more potential as a reliever; two solid pitches would not sustain him as a college starter.
So to the bullpen Johnson went. There, Johnson toiled through his sophomore season while allowing 35 runs over 44 1/3 innings, hardly the picture of the dominant closer fans see today.
Yet, it all changed in the summer of 2010 when Johnson made adjustments to his form and improved his pitch speed from the mid-80s to the mid-90s — a jump that can make the difference between a collegiate pitcher and a professional one.
With his burning fastball and an apparent inability to give up critical runs, Johnson has morphed into a dream for Lee, who has 25 years of coaching experience at the collegiate level under his belt.
“He’s the best closer I’ve had in all my years of coaching,” said Lee. “He has the ability to come in with runners in scoring position and get out of it without giving up any further damage.”
For now, the Mustangs are using Johnson as much as they can. Soon, in all likelihood, after the Major League Baseball draft starts June 6, Johnson will have a new team and begin his professional career.
But for Johnson, it’s just one more step to complete a dream he had to put on hold.
“I have my dream, I know what it is and I’m just going to chase after it now,” he said. “If that doesn’t work I can always finish up school and figure out what I want to do from there.”
Until then, the Mustangs will use Johnson to fuel a postseason run. Miller said Johnson could be the guy to put them over the top.
“We know once Johnson gets into the game, it’s over,” Miller said.
And maybe that’s just the motto Johnson seeks. Game over.