Not only did he break into the weekend rotation midway through this season, now he’ll be handed the ball in the Tar Heels first game in the Chapel Hill Regional.
“It’s just a complete turnaround,” Fox said. “He was basically at the edge of the cliff and he was either going to fall off or make it all the way back. To his credit he’s done everything he’s needed to do to right the ship, both academically and all that translated on to the field.”
Johnson, who has appeared in 20 games this season including six starts, agreed that his increased effort in the classroom helped him on the baseball field too. His study habits and increased focus have resulted in a strong year on the mound. He’s 6-1 with an ERA of 1.40 in 2012 with a 63-22 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s allowed just eight earned runs.
Johnson has four pitches that, according to his battery mate Jacob Stallings, he has excellent control of and uses them effectively to keep hitters guessing.
“It’s a huge advantage to have three quality pitches in college and he’s got four,” Stallings said. “It’s just hard to stay on balance with him.”
Though one year ago Johnson never would have imagined it, Friday afternoon he’ll open up the NCAA Tournament for the Tar Heels as their starting pitcher – and rightfully so, he feels blessed.
“It’s definitely been a lot of hard work,” Johnson said “I put myself in a bind last year academically and on the field. I’ve been trying to work back from that so I’ve been blessed to be in the position I’m in now and for coach to have the confidence in me to put me out there for the first regional game.”
Johnson’s career as a Tar Heel was nearly cut abruptly short last summer but this summer he’s a key part in one of the best pitching staffs in the country. Fox is pleased he gutted it out, because Johnson has performed very well down the stretch.
Just for example, two weeks ago Johnson took a perfect game into the eighth inning against Virginia Tech.
“It’s a great story,” Fox said, “great credit to him. He didn’t want to leave North Carolina – I’m glad he didn’t.”