Chase Johnson went from the top of Cal Poly’s bullpen to somewhere near the margin of Mustangs head coach Larry Lee’s circle of reliable arms.
But after a late-season surge and a solid audition for scouts at last week’s NCAA regional in Los Angeles, Johnson’s previous troubles didn’t stop him from becoming the first Cal Poly player selected in the MLB Draft on Friday and the only Mustang to go in the first 10 rounds.
The 6-foot-3 hard-throwing junior was taken in the third round, 101st overall, by the San Francisco Giants, signaling the end of an up and down collegiate career.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it really,” Johnson said of being picked so early in the day. The first and second rounds of the draft were conducted Thursday. I had heard from a few scouts, a few teams, the Giants being one of them, that were really interested in me. I was just hoping they’d pull the trigger on it.”
Cal Poly’s current closer, Reed Reilly, went undrafted in the first 10 rounds. Reilly, a redshirt sophomore, said he was contacted by a team during the seventh round but indicated he would rather return to San Luis Obispo for his junior season after hearing a potential contract offer.
“As of now, I am coming back,” Reilly said Friday. “Unless there’s a really big offer (today), I’ll probably be back. There’s like a 90 percent chance. I’ve already told the coaches.”
Johnson has yet to sign a contract, but according to MLB’s assigned pick value, the 101st selection is slotted to receive a $510,600 signing bonus, which may end up being higher or lower depending on bonuses awarded the Giants’ other draft picks.
Seventh-round bonus values ranged from approximately $202,000 to $160,000.
The final 30 rounds of the draft are scheduled for today.
Armed with a fastball consistently clocked in the mid-90s, Johnson finished the year tossing 91⁄3 scoreless innings to lower his season ERA to an impressive 2.31.
He threw 4 1⁄3 effective innings in Cal Poly’s three-game run in the NCAA Regional, pitching in all three games and allowing just one hit and one walk.
Johnson said his fastball touched 97 mph in his relief appearance in a regional-opening 9-2 victory over
San Diego, the Mustangs’ first postseason win since moving up from Division II in 1995.
The regional “helped me out a lot,” Johnson said, “because I hadn’t gotten a ton of innings this year, three days in a row, they saw me three different days. If that was one day, one outing, it might not have helped as much, but I consistently did good in all three of those outings.”
In front of pro scouts as well as regional and national media, Johnson pitched a perfect inning in a 6-4 loss to UCLA and had another scoreless stint in an 8-5 elimination loss to the Toreros.
“I’m very thankful for it,” Johnson said. “I feel like toward the end of the season, I proved myself to be able to pitch at this level. I think coach Lee saw that, and I’m really glad that I was chosen to pitch in those innings.”
Johnson ended up pitching just 23 1⁄3 innings, striking out 21 and walking nine, but he was rarely in the game in crucial situations.
It was a departure from his sophomore season when he went 3-4 with a 3.34 ERA, eight saves and a team-leading 25 appearances.
And Johnson’s reduced role was also a little surprising given his offseason showing for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League, the premier summer collegiate baseball league in the country.
In 20 1⁄3 innings over 20 appearances, Johnson was 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA, striking out 23 and walking eight.
“That was huge,” Johnson said. “Without that Cape Cod experience, I wouldn’t have gone this high in the draft. Every game out there, there’s 10 to 20 scouts at all the games. I got a lot of exposure out there.
“I was throwing pretty hard, and I think that helped me out because I got seen by some of the big guys from all the teams.”
Johnson said he auditioned for a return to the starting rotation in the fall. He opened his Cal Poly career as a starter, going 2-5 with a 3.67 ERA as a true freshman.
When the season rolled around, he was back in the bullpen and had a suspect outing in the season-opening series.
He struck out two in a scoreless inning in the third game of a series sweep at San Francisco, but after going out for another frame, he walked the bases loaded and was charged with two runs.
But by the end of the season, it appeared as if Johnson had won back the confidence of the coaches and regained whatever he had lost over the previous year and a half.
“It’s hard to say,” Johnson said, trying to account for what had changed. “It was just a calmness. I feel like sometimes, I get a little too amped up when I’m pitching. It’s just a calmness and a composure when I’m out there.
Coaches “just told me to keep on doing what I was doing, because I think they knew that it kind of clicked and I figured it out.”