VAN JOHNSON COMING UP ACES FOR MISSISSIPPI STATE
By Chris Burrows
STARKVILLE Two years ago, Saltillo’s Van Johnson was sitting in his dorm room at Birmingham-Southern and figured he was supposed to be happy.
He was a freshman honors student in a private school and figured heavily in the pitching plans of one of the nation’s best NAIA baseball programs. He liked the school. He liked his coaches. He liked his teammates. He was supposed to be happy.
Instead, he was homesick.
“I came home,” said Johnson, who signed with Mississippi State two weeks later. “Am I happy now? What do you think?”
It’s hard to tell who is happier, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound sophomore or the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Johnson has become the key performer on the pitching staff, especially in light of injuries to closer Scott Polk and starters Jeremy Jackson and Brett Wheeler. Johnson’s role juggles between short reliever, middle reliever and No. 4 starting pitcher. In each case, the right-hander has been brilliant.
“It’s going great right now,” said Johnson, who was a fixture in the pitching rotation of three consecutive American Legion state championship teams for the Tupelo 49ers. “It’s a different role for me than in high school or Legion ball, but I love it.”
After Sunday’s sweep of Georgia, Johnson leads the team in appearances (12), saves (2) and ERA (1.80). He has walked only eight men in 35 innings, struck out 35 and opposing hitters are hitting only .214 against him.
“We expected Van to fill a big role as a sophomore,” said MSU head coach Ron Polk, whose club is 8-4 in the SEC Western Division and 16-9 overall after Georgia. “(Pitching) Coach (Pat) McMahon made a little change in his delivery and it’s really paid off for him.”
McMahon, the associate head coach, got Johnson to drop the release point of his delivery to the three-quarters mark. Johnson, whose trademark has been control, didn’t have any problems making the adjustment.
“You lose a little bit in velocity when you drop it down and I’m guessing I’ve probably lost a couple of miles per hour,” said Johnson, who consistently throws in the high 80s. “But what I’ve gained with ball movement is unbelievable.
“My ball always had good movement, but it’s surprised me how much it’s moving now,” Johnson said. “Against right-handed hitters, my ball is just taking off. All I’m doing is throwing strikes, getting ahead in the count and letting everything else take care of itself.”
The biggest adjustment for Johnson has been the physical adjustment from being a top starting pitcher. “When you’re No. 4, or throwing in relief, you’ve got to stay (physically) loose in every game and pace yourself so you don’t throw yourself out in the bullpen.
“But it’s not a problem once I understand what’s expected of me. I’ve been put in situations where I could succeed and that’s helped. I’d like to say it was me, but I’ve really been fortunate so far how things are working out.”