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Johnson has settled into closer's role

Johnson has settled into closer's role
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Life in the minor leagues is often referred to as a tough grind, but for Lake County Captains’ closer Jeff Johnson, it’s the best life he can think of.

Johnson is a 22-year-old right-hander from Thousand Oaks, California whom the Cleveland Indians drafted in the 10th round of the 2011 draft out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Though he signed in 2011, Johnson did not grace the mound for the pros due to a strained UCL in his elbow that sidelined him for most of the season.

Now, Johnson has presently converted 10 saves for the Captains with a 3-2 record and 6.04 ERA. He struggled early in April but has since conformed to his closer role and settled in as the Captains’ ninth inning anchor.

Throughout three years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Johnson went 2-0 with five saves and a 1.63 ERA through 18 appearances. Life in pro ball is better though, because there are no classes and no extra-curriculars.

“Out here, it’s a lot more fun,” Johnson said. “You get to come out every day and you don’t have to worry about anything else. Just come out, get your work in and play ball.”

Johnson struggled in his first few outings as he surrendered 10 earned runs on 12 hits and six walks in six appearances in April. However, his numbers don’t necessarily speak for him, considering he had a few tough outings where he had to eat up some innings due to lack of depth in the bullpen.

May was much kinder to Johnson as he yielded just five earned runs on nine hits in the month.

“I think I just started making adjustments – a couple mechanical things and just making the transition,” Johnson said. “I finally kind of adjusted to it and finally got back in my groove.” In terms of his mechanical changes, he was getting too far out in front and leaving his arm behind. Now, he’s managed to increase his velocity and spot his pitches better.

Now that he’s settled into his closing role, there’s no other place Johnson would rather be.

“It’s my favorite role,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Johnson doesn’t seem to mind the pressure that accompanies the closer role. In fact, he thrives on it.

“Just coming in the ninth inning, the game’s in your hands,” he said. “Coming to close it out, everyone’s relying on you. It’s just a great feeling to be able to go in and shut the door and high-five the catcher after the last out.”

Johnson’s approach to pitching is simple. He doesn’t overthink or fret about the game and the situations he faces.

“I just relax, watch the game, watch the hitters and what their tendencies are,” he said. “I kind of just have a plan when you go in there just to throw strikes and put the pressure on them.”

Now that he feels more comfortable and has adjusted to life in the minor leagues, Johnson’s key goal is that of any relief pitcher.

“It’s just to convert as many saves as I possibly can and help the team win as much as possible,” he said. “As far as mechanics, I feel like I’m in a pretty good place now. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Johnson will continue to work on the same trio of pitches he’s had throughout the past – fastball, splitter and slider. He also noted that his elbow is feeling much better. He went straight to rehab right after the draft and has since nursed his arm back into shape.

Captains’  manager David Wallace has been impressed with Johnson and also noted that Johnson’s numbers don’t do him any justice. Wallace admires Johnson’s bulldog mentality and direct ambition to attack hitters.

“We really like Jeff because he’s aggressive,” Wallace said. “He goes after guys, he’s got three out pitches – his splitter’s the one he goes to most often when he’s trying to strike a guy out and it’s nasty.”

Wallace compared Johnson to Cleveland Indians’ current closer, Chris Perez, because he feels like Johnson's approach is much like Cleveland’s fire-starter.

“I didn’t see Chris Perez in the minor leagues,”  Wallace noted. “But just his [Johnson’s] mentality and how he goes after guys, he’s fearless out there. It reminds me a lot of Chris Perez.” 

Even if baseball is his top priority, Johnson knows how to enjoy his time off. He spends his off-days playing videogames and sitting around on the couch to try to relax as much as possible with his roommate, Mason Radeke. The two relievers were also roommates in college and were drafted together by the Indians last year.

Things have fallen into place for Johnson and now he’s thrilled to be closing games for the Lake County Captains. With his injuries behind him, he and his splitter are ready to contribute as many wins as possible to the team – and except for maybe on the mound at Progressive Field, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“In my eyes, it’s a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “To be playing baseball every day is awesome. I can’t complain one bit.”

Stephanie is a crime and general assignment reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio. She’s an alumna of Cleveland State University with a degree in Journalism and Promotional Communication. You can follow her on Twitter @7thInningSteph.

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