It's hard to believe that a 5-0 record, a 1.25 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 36 innings could be numbers that actually didn't meet a pitcher's goal in their professional debut. That's how well things were going for Brooklyn Cyclones reliever Jimmy Johnson when he set forth his goals in August.
"My goals? Maybe to finish with an ERA of one or lower," said Johnson, a 22-year-old left-handed reliever drafted by the Mets in the 28th round of the 2008 draft out of Biola College, Calif., who outlined a championship as his primary objective. "Coming in I wasn't thinking about [an ERA below 1]."
Johnson, a 6-foot, 195-pound left-handed reliever, throws a two-seam fastball, a curveball and a changeup, and finished August, his first full month of pro ball, with a 0.60 ERA.
"Everyone feels the same way when he's on the mound. He's been lights out for us," says Cyclones catcher Jordan Abruzzo. "Usually we have a lead and that's why you go to him. We know he's going throw a lot of strikes, and he's got a really good curveball. He gets ahead and uses that and his changeup."
Johnson's curveball and fastball have always been effective when he hits his spots, but relieving wasn't always his thing: Johnson went 9-3 with a 4.80 ERA in 14 starts as senior this year for the Eagles, who play in the NAIA. In fact, relieving was something he had never done until entering pro ball, and it took some adjusting.
"I was kind of excited to try something new. The first couple weeks my arm got a little tired because I had to get loose so quick, but now it's going well," Johnson says.
"When you're starting you get as much time to warm up as you want—you can start whenever you want, finish whatever you want. But with relievers, they make that phone call, you get eight pitches in the bullpen, eight pitches out there and you're ready to go."
Some teams were looking at Johnson to enter the pros as a reliever, some teams as a starter. He says he's not disappointed that he's no longer in the rotation, and that relieving has its high points and low points.
"The phone rings and the guy says 'Hey, Johnson, warm up,' and then the adrenaline shoots right then," Johnson says. "It's kind of cool, you get a quick adrenaline rush, but it also sucks when you warm up and don't go in the game."
Regardless of what he was drafted as, Johnson did not expect to be taken as high as the 28th round. He's one of three Cyclones teammates, along with outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Chris Schwinden, to be drafted out of the NAIA, which is comparable to NCAA Division II.
The fact that he was a fifth-year senior and that he played in a lesser known conference led Johnson to believe he would go late in the draft, but he's made good on the Mets' middle-round pick.
"Honestly, I got to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff, to [pitching coach Hector Barrios]. He goes over a lot of situations so when you get out there you don't think about it, it kind of just comes natural to you."
Though he calls himself a lefty specialist, Johnson actually threw more innings versus righties than lefties, 21 to 15, and held them to a lower batting average, .155 to .139. Coming out of high school, Johnson was throwing in low to mid-80's, stuff he classified as insufficient for D1. Though the NAIA is lesser known, he doesn't regret attending Biola, a Christian school that he says helped shape him as a person, and allowed him to develop as a pitcher.
"We're right up there with D-II [schools]. The only difference between NAIA, and I might hear this from our D-1 guys a little bit, is the depth—they could bring in relievers that would be number one starters for us," Johnson says.
The only regret Johnson had about his college career was that the Eagles didn't go farther in his senior year.
Johnson says his teammates used to joke around with him about his alma mater and the NAIA, until they realized that he had backup in Nieuwenhuis and Schwinden.
The Brooklyn atmosphere was different for Johnson, who pitched in front of 100-150 fans on average with Biola. In front of Brooklyn's approximate capacity of 8,000 on Opening Night, he futilely tried to tell himself 'Don't look up.'
"I came out and I warmed up not looking at the fans because I knew it'd bother me," he recalls. "Then right after I warmed up I looked up and I was like 'Oh man, we're in it now.' It's kind of fun because you kind of think about every pitch more, because I've been booed. You just shake it off and you know what you can do and you just go do it the next night."