Florida’s Johnson not a normal freshman
Follow Kendall Rogers on Twitter at @ysportsncaabb.
Some would say Florida pitcher Brian Johnson is living a dream. Johnson and UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan would say it is business as usual for the freshman left-hander.
Florida entered the season with high hopes and the expectation of reaching the College World Series. Unless something changes down the stretch, the Gators are right on cue.
There are plenty of players to thank for the solid season, with the Gators 28-11 and a 12-6 (third place) mark in the SEC.
Johnson, though, might be the most to thank for the stability he has brought to the weekend rotation with Tommy Toledo still out of the mix because of a facial injury.
Johnson has made one relief appearance, but he is mainly a weekend starter for the Gators, where he has made eight starts and has an outstanding 2.91 ERA in 43 1/3 innings of work He also has struck out 31 batters, walked nine and opponents are hitting him at a .266 clip.
Plenty of observers are surprised at what Johnson has accomplished.
O’Sullivan isn’t one of those people.
He saw this coming.
“I think we all knew Brian had a chance to be very good [out of high school]”, O’Sullivan said. “He was a big physical left-handed pitcher that knew how to throw strikes. The first time I saw him, he threw 60 pitches in an outing and I believe 53 of the pitches he threw that day were strikes.”
“That honestly was really all I needed to see from him.”
Plenty of professional organizations had their sights set on Johnson, too. Johnson’s velocity increased early during his senior season, but after a back muscle issue, his velocity was very inconsistent the rest of the season.
As a result, Johnson’s draft stock dropped and the Dodgers selected him in just the 27th round of the MLB draft last summer.
Johnson’s decision to attend college was a no brainer at that point.
After a solid fall for the Gators, Johnson entered the spring with high expectations. The Gators hoped to mix him into the weekend rotation or bullpen. Either way, O’Sullivan wanted him to have an integral role. But after throwing 5 2/3 innings of shutout baseball against South Florida on opening weekend, there was little doubt where Johnson belonged.
He was a starting pitcher.
“You know, the mental side of things has been huge for me this season,” Johnson said. “Coming out of high school, you think you pretty much know everything. But this level doesn’t even compare. You have to know how to approach every situation at this level.”
“Whatever role the coaches thought I should be in I was completely fine with.”
Johnson has been on cruise control since the South Florida series. However, he suffered a slight setback during the Tennessee series three weekends ago when he suffered a pulled lat muscle that scratched his start at Kentucky the following weekend.
Last weekend, though, after missing the UK start, Johnson was back to business.
Against one of the nation’s hottest offensive lineups in Arkansas, Johnson simply was masterful. He struck out nine batters and allowed just three hits in seven shutout frames.
“He is just one of those guys for us. I have coached a lot of solid freshman pitchers, and Brian is just a special pitcher that you can see evolving into a great pitcher,” O’Sullivan said. “I can envision him being a Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss) or Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt) in the future.”
In the future? Johnson already is close to being one of those guys.
“He is able to throw his fastball on both sides of the plate and it’s a good fastball. He was in the low 90s against us, and I heard he might’ve topped out at 94 MPH,” an SEC head coach said. “He really did a nice job of going in and out of the strike zone against our team. He had a pretty good breaking ball that kept hitters off balance.”
“It also helps that he [Johnson] does a great job of attacking hitters.”
As the final stretch of the regular season approaches, the Gators plan on using Johnson in even more roles than on the mound. As a hitter, Johnson has a .375 batting average in 24 at bats. And it’s no secret that O’Sullivan plans to make him a more integral part of the offensive lineup.”
Against Arkansas last weekend, Johnson helped score the winning run in addition to shutting down the Razorbacks on the mound.
He is just one of those guys for the Gators.
And he’s only a freshman.
Texas – The Longhorns are riding a 17-game winning streak and are in total control of the Big 12 title race. Can anyone slow down the ‘Horns?
Boston College – The Eagles swept N.C. State last weekend and are riding a nine-game winning streak entering the Virginia Tech series this weekend.
Cal State Fullerton – The Titans are riding a seven-game winning streak and hit the road this weekend to face a very pesky Pacific club.
St. John’s – The Red Storm is flying under the radar because of Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh in the Big East, but is riding an impressive eight-game winning streak.
Connecticut – The Huskies were riding a magical 22-game winning streak before losing a surprising midweek game to Central Connecticut State.
Portland – The Pilots are one of the best stories this season. They have won seven-straight games and are 11-1 in the West Coast Conference.
New Mexico State – The Aggies are riding a six-game winning streak and have the luxury of getting Louisiana Tech and Fresno State at home the next two weekends.
Clemson – The Tigers are in big trouble after dropping a series at home to North Carolina last weekend. They now have lost seven of their last ten games.
Texas A&M – The Aggies have played a bad brand of baseball lately and are 3-7 in their last ten games. A&M hits the road to Nebraska this weekend.
Nebraska – The Huskers still haven’t won a Big 12 series. Will that trend finally end this weekend with A&M coming to town?
South Florida – The Bulls have resorted back to their old ways with three-straight losses and a 3-7 record in their last ten games.
UAB – The Blazers haven’t taken a step forward this season. They actually are sixth in Conference USA and have lost eight of their last ten games.
UNLV – It wasn’t too long ago the Rebels appeared to be turning athe corner. Now they’re riding a six-game losing streak and are 4-6 in their last ten.
Oregon State – The Beavers are in huge trouble after losing eight of their last ten games and four of their last five series.
UCLA plays host to Arizona State – The series of the year in the Pac-10 takes place this weekend, as the Bruins play host to the Sun Devils. ASU has a 2 1/2 game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-10 title race, but UCLA has plenty of time to win the title. It starts this weekend. The Bruins are coming off a road series win over Arizona, while the Sun Devils are coming off a home series win over Washington. This series will come down to which team gets the best pitching performances from their starting pitchers. UCLA has a slight edge at home.
LSU heads to Sunshine State to face Florida – The Tigers really could use a solid weekend to stay in the mix for a national seed. After losing a road series to Mississippi last weekend, the Tigers now have lost two of their last three series. LSU can’t afford to lose three of its last four series. Florida, meanwhile, is in great shape after taking a home series against Arkansas last weekend. It will be interesting to see how LSU junior pitcher Anthony Ranaudo fares against the Gators this weekend.
Oregon State in a must-win situation at California – It only was a few weeks ago we were talking about the Beavers and the possibility of hosting an NCAA regional. Now it would be a minor surprise if the Beavers even made a regional. OSU has been that bad the past few weeks. The Beavers are coming off a road series loss to Washington State, and have lost four of their last five series. Things don’t get any easier this weekend as the Beavers hit the road to face a California club that needs a series win after losing all three games to Stanford last weekend. OSU likely will be sitting at home during regionals if it drops this series.
Boston College heads to Virginia Tech – Boston College was one of the nation’s pleasant surprises last season. Well, Virginia Tech fits the same bill this season. The Hokies are 29-14 and would have to do some bad things down the stretch not to make an NCAA regional. The Eagles aren’t in as good of shape, but possess a solid 12-9 ACC record. BC, though, only has a record of 3-12 against RPI Top 50 teams. The winner of this series is in even better shape in the ACC postseason pecking order.
Saying Portland is having a memorable campaign is an understatement.
Before this season, the most wins the Pilots had recorded under the tutelage of coach Chris Sperry were 24 last season.
With almost a month left to the regular season, the Pilots have a record of 27-9 and an amazing West Coast Conference mark of 11-1.
Sperry isn’t the type to think too far ahead, but the Pilots very well could make an NCAA postseason appearance. To do that, though, they must finish the regular season on the right foot with an RPI of just 76 this week.
Sperry, who is in his 13th season as head coach of the Pilots, sat down with us to talk about his team’s amazing campaign, the dominant performances by ace pitcher Zach Varce and the state of baseball in the Pacific Northwest.
Rogers: The team is sitting at 11-1 after 12 conference games. How can you explain the fantastic play of your club in WCC play?
Sperry: I think the biggest reason for our success is the fact we have had some great pitching so far this season. The starting pitching has done a wonderful job of throwing well and getting us very deep into games. Because of that we have been able to transition in our closer late in games, as opposed to having to bring him out earlier than we would want to. Our pitchers really have done a great job of keeping teams off balance and minimizing what opponents can do at the plate. As a result, our pitching has given our offensive a chance to be a little more patient at the plate. We started conference with a road series sweep and that has given us much confidence. There’s no substitute for that.
Rogers: When you look back at last season, the team finished with just 25 wins for the entire season. You already have more wins than that this season. What have been the biggest differences this season?
Sperry: We have a veteran group this season. The junior class, for example, is filled with guys that really have been playing a significant amount of time since they were freshmen two seasons ago. They took the program from winning 13 or 14 games per year to 21 their freshmen year and 25 as sophomores last season. They have been a huge part of rebuilding the program back up. They have a wealth of experience. This team plays solid defense. On paper, we felt we had a chance to be competitive this season because we were strong up the middle, had two really good catchers and had some nice hitters. This team has played well.
Rogers: Which players have been the biggest surprises so far this season?
Sperry: The emergence of C.J. Cullen at the plate has been absolutely huge for this team. He came in as a shortstop and started for a while. Then we didn’t use him as much because we brought in a good freshman. As a result, C.J. didn’t really play too much. To his credit, though, he continued to work extremely hard and find other ways to help the club. We moved him to first base this season and he hasn’t cooled off at all since the second weekend of the season. It is just great to find a senior hitter like him that has been super productive and have him bat third in the lineup. He is huge for us. Beau Fraser is really hitting the ball well and Rocky Gale really has improved his game, too. The addition of Chris Dennis as closer has been huge for this team, too. Dennis has allowed us to use Zach Varce primarily as a starting pitcher. We didn’t have a proven closer behind Varce last season. This season we do, though.
Rogers: What could the team improve on between now and the end of the season?
Sperry: I have three left-handed hitters in our lineup and I’ve been trying to get one of them hot. Kyle Haskin is a guy that we think can get hot from the left side. But that area of our team has been a struggle so far this season. Something else is I think it’s important to continue to develop our pitching staff. If there are days when our starting pitchers can’t go too deep, we’ve got to continue to find ways to bridge the gap between the starting pitchers and Chris Dennis. We’ve used some freshmen in that role so far this season, and they have done a nice job. But still, that is a very important area for us.
Rogers: Junior pitcher Zach Varce is putting up All-American numbers this season. What makes him such a special pitcher?
Sperry: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact Zach has a fantastic makeup. He doesn’t get rattled by anything and he tends to put some people to sleep when he is out on the mound. He has four pitches that he throws pretty much anytime for strikes. His fastball is probably an average fastball if you’re an MLB scout, but he is going to go 88-91 MPH with it and perhaps 93 MPH on occasion. He doesn’t pitch there very often, but probably would more often if he still closed for us. He is chewing up a lot of innings and is now more of a pitcher than thrower. His fastball is very effective because his secondary stuff is so good. Hitters are off balance and can’t really eliminate any pitch from consideration. That makes him very difficult to hit.
Rogers: Even with a low RPI right now, you have a great record and hope to make an NCAA postseason berth at the end of the season. What are you pitching to people and what are your telling your players about the possibility?
Sperry: I really haven’t had too much to pitch so far this season. I still feel like we have plenty of work to do. My pitch to my team, though, is the fact we have to continue to work hard and not take anything for granted. When you look at the RPI right now, we’re not in the top 64 and we’re not out of the woods at all. We just need to continue to climb the ladder in the eyes of people making decisions at the end of the regular season. San Diego is going to be a huge series for us because it has a nice RPI. But we also have some nice road series at the end of the season, so we have some chances to help our postseason situation. If we can do well on the road, I think we have a good chance to make a regional.
Rogers: How about the rise of college baseball in the Pacific Northwest this season and the past couple of seasons?
Sperry: It is so wonderful to see. I grew up in Vancouver, Wash., and went to college at Portland. I got to play in an NCAA regional in 1989 and it was a great thrill because I grew up watching Oregon State and Washington State play in regionals. By the time I came along in college baseball, Oregon already had dropped its program. Oregon State did what it did a couple of seasons ago by winning back-to-back national titles, and I think that kind of legitimized baseball in the region. I really think what Coach Casey and his staff did at OSU really put the region on the national map. Then you have programs like Washington State and Gonzaga getting to regionals, and now Oregon is going to make a regional with a fantastic facility. It’s a pretty exciting deal.
Just for an update, who would you pick to win the national title if the season ended today?
Virginia is still a very good pick to win the national title, but it’s hard to go against Texas with how it is playing right now. The Longhorns have an exceptional weekend rotation with Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green and Brandon Workman leading the way. Closer Chance Ruffin is one of the best in the business. The offense, meanwhile, has increased its batting average to a respectable .291. The Longhorns continue to pitch at a high level and will be incredibly difficult to beat in the postseason if the offense continues to take care of business.
Do you believe Connecticut deserves to host an NCAA regional as of today?
Critics can say what they want about the Huskies, but this team is the real deal and should host a regional if it continues to win the rest of the regular season. Sure, the Huskies only have a 2-3 record against RPI Top 50 teams. But one must remember the Huskies don’t exactly have a lot of options when it comes to non-conference scheduling, especially in the midweek. Connecticut put together an amazing winning streak and has an overall record of 34-8 with a 13-2 mark in the Big East. The committee could have a very tough decision on its hands when it comes to the Huskies and hosting a regional.
Are you surprised that George Horton is doing so well at Oregon this season?
Horton may very well be the best coach in college baseball. I’m really not sure any other coach could go to Oregon and make it a regional host contender in their second season. Somehow, though, Horton has been able to accomplish that goal. The Ducks have an Omaha-like pitching staff that has an earned-run average of 3.16. The offense, though, is the biggest reason the Ducks have taken a huge step forward this season. UO hit below .250 last season, but has a .290 batting average so far this season. The Ducks are the real deal and could find a way to reach the College World Series.
There is a good chance Florida will get starting pitcher Tommy Toledo back in the mix sooner rather than later. Toledo recently threw a pair of successful bullpen sessions. UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Toledo probably could throw this weekend, but that he likely won’t chance putting him back on the mound a little too early. Interestingly, Toledo has dropped 10-15 pounds since his injury. Endurance could be an issue for him. Stay tuned … There has been plenty of speculation the past couple of weeks about Connecticut’s potential NCAA regional hosting situation. Well, the unofficial word is the Huskies likely would host a regional at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn., if granted a host site. Dodd Stadium serves as home to the Connecticut Tigers of the New York-Penn League. It has a capacity of 6,000 and the Tigers are a short-season team. Therefore, facility accommodations will not be an issue in late May and early June. The Huskies still have some work to do to host a regional, but things are looking good … After a horrible defensive performance against Texas A&M last week, Rice coach Wayne Graham finally decided to move veteran Rick Hague away from shortstop for two games of the East Carolina series. Hague, though, returned to shortstop on Sunday and did a nice job for the Owls. It’ll be interesting to see if Hague comes back and continues to play shortstop after Rice’s weekend off … Cal State Fullerton sophomore pitcher Noe Ramirez continues to rehab his fractured wrist that was sustained a couple of weeks ago. The Titans are taking things very slow with Ramirez, so don’t look for him to be in the weekend rotation in a road series against Pacific this weekend. Not rushing Ramirez is a very smart move for the Titans, who are playing an outstanding brand of baseball … Texas A&M veteran position player Caleb Shofner will miss at least two weeks of action because of a fractured foot. Shofner had surgery on his foot earlier this week and the Aggies don’t expect him back for a couple of weeks. Shofner is a guy the Aggies desperately need to have the final couple of weeks of the regular season … LSU’s Anthony Ranaudo and Ole Miss’ Drew Pomeranz were expected to have one of the best pitching duels of the season last weekend in Oxford, Miss. But thanks to strong winds and particularly iffy pitching by both, the duel turned into a slugfest. Ranaudo allowed nine runs and nine hits in 1 2/3 innings of work. Pomeranz, meanwhile, allowed five runs in three innings of work because of some control issues. Speaking of the MLB draft, it does seem like Pomeranz’s stock has surpassed Ranaudo’s as of late … Arizona State veteran left-handed pitcher Josh Spence once again will not throw against UCLA this weekend. Spence has yet to appear in a game this season because of supposed arm soreness. The Sun Devils, though, continue to win games without the talented lefty … Vanderbilt ace pitcher Sonny Gray will be forced to move back in the weekend rotation this weekend against Georgia. Gray was suspended four games by the NCAA for allegedly throwing at a Tennessee hitter last Friday. Gray likely will start Saturday this weekend against the Bulldogs. Gray’s suspension comes on the heels of the suspension of USC pitcher Alex Sherrod, who threw at an Arizona State hitter two weekends ago.
Florida and Louisville – The NCAA Selection Committee would have a true dilemma if the season ended today. Florida is just third in the SEC, but has the No. 1 RPI in the land with an overall record of 28-11. Florida is just 15-10 against RPI Top 50 teams, but would the committee not give the No. 1 overall RPI a national seed? Speaking of a situation similar to that, check out Louisville. The Cardinals don’t even lead the Big East, but have a record of 33-7 and an RPI of 4. Once again, the committee would have a tough time not giving the Cardinals a national seed if the season ended today. This definitely is a situation to watch as the season progresses.
South Carolina – The Gamecocks have the best record in the SEC right now, but would they not be a national seed if the season ended today? My money is on yes they would be a national seed, but those that say no have a reason, too. According to the latest RPI figures, the Gamecocks have an RPI of 17. Interestingly, South Carolina is 7-5 against RPI Top 25 teams and an impressive 16-6 against RPI Top 50 teams. The Gamecocks will be a national seed if they win the SEC, regardless of if they have an RPI of 6 or 17.
Mississippi – Think that series sweep over LSU last weekend meant a little something to the Rebels? They had an RPI in the 40s entering the LSU series, but they now have an RPI of 21 and are back in the NCAA regional hosting hunt. Just for an inside look at the Rebels, they have a 9-6 record against RPI Top 25 teams and a 11-8 mark against RPI Top 50 teams. The Rebels may not yet be a regional host, but a strong finish likely would mean they at least host the first round.
Connecticut – Is there anyone in the northern half of the country not rooting for the Huskies right now? Sure, the Huskies had their amazing winning streak ended by Central Connecticut State of all teams on Wednesday. But the Huskies are the real deal. The Huskies also have a very good chance of hosting an NCAA regional. The Huskies lead the Big East and have an outstanding overall record of 34-8. Interestingly, though, the Huskies are just 1-2 against RPI Top 25 teams and 2-3 against RPI Top 50 clubs. Those are the only numbers holding the Huskies back.
Conference USA – It’s important each week to keep tabs on the most disappointing conference in college baseball. Rice is heating up and proved to be the elite team in C-USA with a home series sweep over East Carolina last weekend. The Owls, who are just 7-10 against RPI Top 50 teams, could find their way back in the regional hosting mix in the near future. The rest of the league is in bad shape, though. Tulane has an RPI of 61, but also has a .500 record in conference. There also is ECU, which is .500 in conference with an RPI of 70. C-USA likely is a one-bid league as of today. Tulane is the one team that could make the field of 64, though.