If you don’t know Jeff Johnson’s name by now, Cal Poly baseball head coach Larry Lee might be ready to wager that you will by season’s end.
Whereas Mustangs second baseman Matt Jensen has had his reputation as a pro prospect twice tarnished by freak injuries and is looking to regain some acclaim, Johnson — a junior pitcher from the same signing class as Jensen — is poised for his first big breakout.
With Cal Poly coming off a disappointing 23-32 season, the closer added velocity to a decent fastball that had previously been more of a complement to a devastating splitter.
“The first two years, I was just throwing mid-80s fastballs,” said Johnson, who has his velocity peaking at 95 mph this offseason. “It definitely jumped. I never saw myself throwing this hard in my life. I never thought I’d be capable of it.”
Now the Thousand Oaks High alumnus is suddenly one of several draft-eligible juniors, which includes Jensen, outfielder Bobby Crocker and starter Mason Radeke, who are looking to return the Mustangs to what could be the program’s second postseason appearance after a one-year absence in 2010.
“We’re deep in pitching and hitting,” said Jensen, who hit a grand slam in the Team USA baseball trials last summer after recovering from a dislocated knee that forced him to miss Cal Poly’s final 19 games last season. “It’s all meshing together right now, and it’s really strong. It’s hard to compare to the ’09 team, but right now, I think on paper, we look just as good.”
The Mustangs made their first-ever NCAA Division I regional appearance in 2009, finishing with a 37-21 record.
This year’s team will put its paper credentials to the test with a season-opening tournament at USC this weekend. Cal Poly games against North Carolina and Missouri are scheduled for today, with a matchup against the host Trojans slated for Sunday.
Rain could force a delay or cancellation of some or all of the games, but the Mustangs will be able to remain in Los Angeles through Monday to get in as many contests as possible.
Cal Poly’s success will likely hinge on a starting rotation that appears rejuvenated by a couple of players returning from injury and a newcomer.
After elbow soreness caused Lee to shut him down after only four starts last season, Radeke had a very light summer workload and returned to school pain free in the fall. The righty is fully healthy and slated as the Friday starter in the weekend rotation.
Steven Fischback is making his return after missing all of the past two seasons recovering from a torn labrum.
Fischback’s teammates are inspired by his comeback, and he’s increased his fastball velocity to the high-80s, but Lee expects it to be slow going for the fifth-year senior right-hander despite penciling him in as the No. 2 guy.
“We’re hoping he gets progressively better with each outing,” Lee said. “On the flip side, you don’t know about stamina, not having thrown for the better part of 2½ years.”
The third starter to open the season will be true freshman righty Chase Johnson. The Fallbrook High graduate chose to attend Cal Poly after being drafted in the 26th round by the Texas Rangers last June.
Having new faces back in the rotation means pitchers such as senior Eugene Wright and junior Kyle Anderson can come out of the bullpen after gaining starting experience last season, giving the Mustangs the luxury of pitching depth and plenty of options for mid-week starters.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of depth last year,” Johnson said, “but now we’ve got a bunch of guys that could come in and get a few outs at a time. So, we can just pass it to the next guy and the next guy.”
The Mustangs are hoping the last guy is Johnson.
With a 6.90 ERA, Johnson was Lee’s most reliable option out of the bullpen last season, racking up 53 strikeouts and four saves in 441⁄3 innings or relief.
Anticipating only a couple more seasons left in his baseball career, Johnson said he buckled down over the summer, tweaking his mechanics and economizing his throwing motion to make the most of his college career.
Johnson credits side work with Radeke, Cal Poly pitching coach Jason Kelly and San Luis Obispo Rattlers manager Roy Howell for his added velocity.
Now, Johnson has to potential to have a much longer baseball career, even if his college career gets cut short by the draft.
“His intensity has always been very high,” Crocker said. “He has one or two innings to throw, he’s confident in his pitches, and that’s what makes him good.”