Johnson had an outstanding freshman season. He finished the season with a 9-5 record while throwing 101.1 innings for the Irish. He started 14 games and his seven straight wins prior to the College World Series included a 1-hitter against top-seeded South Alabama in the NCAA Regional. After some early freshman jitters, Johnson was clearly becoming a dominating pitcher.
Coach Paul Mainieri says that Johnson is on target to be ready for the season. "It's been reported to me that his rehab has been going along fine. I think his progress is right on target. I think sometimes Grant probably gets discouraged because he wants it so quickly. It just takes time to rebound. He'll be just fine, I really do believe that and I believe Grant believes that. We're just anxious to get him back to pitching the way he always has for us."
Mainieri knows that Johnson's return will give his team a huge shot in the arm. "He just means so much to our team. He's that guy that every team would love to have. He's that big horse that when you give him the ball he's very capable of pitching a low-run game. He can match up against another team's number one starter and if it means he's got to win a game two to one, he's capable of doing that. When you have a guy like him and Chris Niesel and some of the other guys on our staff that gives us a pretty solid pitching staff. When we have a chance to dominate on the mound then we know we have a chance to win every game we're in."
Johnson's dominance on the mound was something Mainieri saw the first time he scouted him. "Johnson is fearless on the mound. When I scouted him the summer before his senior year, the one thing that jumped out to me was how fearless he was. At that game, I can remember him pitching in a 1-0 game in the last inning. The other team's best hitter was up with the tying and winning runs on base and the count was full. He just kept pumping fastball after fastball in there and the hitter kept fouling him off. Ultimately Grant struck him out to win the game. I was so excited I nearly jumped out of my seat and I was just there scouting game."
Mainieri says Johnson reminds him of another former staff ace pitcher for the Irish—New York Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman. "He reminds me so much of Aaron Heilman. Quite honestly, they pitch a lot like each other. Grant has that hard, tailing fastball that just sinks down and in to right-handed hitters and tails away from lefthanders. Then he comes back with a really outstanding breaking ball. I honestly felt that in Grant's freshman year he was farther along at that point in his career than Aaron was. That is what excites you so much about Grant."
Johnson remembers the injury and says he wasn't concerned about recovering. "It happened in September of my sophomore year," said Johnson of the injury. "I didn't really think about it ending my baseball career. When I came out of surgery and the doctor said ‘well, you are going to be able to pitch again,' I never really thought about it actually ending my career but that kind of opened my eyes."
"Physically, it didn't hurt too bad," said Johnson. "It only hurt me for the first weekend. After that, it was pretty much just an emotional challenge. I've had to sit out and watch all my teammates and friends take the mound and you're not able to throw a ball or lift for the first two or three months. Right now I'm throwing about 120 feet and it feels pretty good. I have a little stiffness but for the most part it feels fine. The doctor thinks I'm stronger than I was before I went in there. I'm lifting hard now and everything feels good."
The recovery involved a lot of waiting for Johnson--something he doesn't like to do. "The first six weeks I was in a sling. Pretty much all they did was move my arm for me and keep my motion. After that it was a lot of tedious stuff in the training room like lifting really light weights. Right now it's more of heavy lifting and really working up my strength to where I used to be. I'm doing a lot of stuff with my back. Tuesdays and Thursday are the toughest days with my shoulder because we do a lot of upper body lifting. For the most part, all the tedious and tough work is behind me and I'm pretty much back to where I was before."
The hard work in rehabilitation has made Johnson even stronger than before. "I definitely feel much stronger than I have in the past. I have a lot of free time right now", said Johnson jokingly "so I might as well spend it improving myself and getting ready for the season."
Johnson says he hopes to be throwing this fall. "Right now they are thinking fastballs and change ups in the fall but I will be able to be on the mound. Towards the end of the winter in November or December I'll be able to throw breaking balls again."
The BIG EAST Tournament was especially hard for Johnson. "I actually went down to the BIG EAST Tournament in Jersey. It was really nice to see some of the guys again. It was tough to sit there and watch and know you can't even go on the playing field. It was nice to see Ryan Kalita step up this year. At the end, Matt Laird was throwing very well and J.P. (Gagne) was always there. It was hard to watch when I was there with the team."
Johnson thinks that the injury will focus him more even more and might be a learning experience. "They had a good example with Danny Tamayo. They say he came out of a surgery as a much better pitcher than before his surgery--I'm trying to follow that. I want to work harder than I ever have and emotionally I know what it's all about. I've learned about patience about I know I'm working harder than I ever have so hopefully that will help me get back and ready for the season next year."Johnson says he's not concerned he might struggle early when he gets back. He knows the Irish have a wealth of pitching to call upon. "I don't really feel any pressure because there are so many guys that can pick up the slack. Obviously I put pressure on myself to be the best and help the team as much as I can to win. Hopefully I won't have any problems next year and we get back to the World Series."
Mainieri is also hopeful that Johnson returns to form. "If he can rebound and return to the same form--which everybody believes he can--then all his goals and aspirations and his impact on this team can all come true. One thing I know about Grant Johnson, if anyone can do it, it will be him. He's as tough mentally as he is physically. He has an immense amount of pride and he's very hungry for success."
If Johnson can return to the pitcher he was at the end of 2002 the Irish could be dancing once again in Omaha.
Notre Dame Sports Information contributed to this story.