Rocket Power

<b>East Islip High (N.Y.)</b> senior pitcher <b>Brian Johnson</b> is a major league prospect thanks to a 96 mph fastball and demeanor similar to his favorite player, Roger Clemens.


All the great power pitchers have it. It's what makes Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling among the top flamethrowers in major league history. Crowd the plate or show disrespect while in the batter's box and you'll be sitting on your backside faster than Randy Johnson throws a fastball.

It's not often you find that type of mindset in a high school pitcher, but East Islip High senior right-hander Brian Johnson isn't your typical high school pitcher. Two years ago at the Empire State Games, Johnson proved that when an overconfident player from the Western New York team needed a quick lesson in Power Pitching 101.

"A kid was coming up to the plate and rolling up his sleeves like he was the big man on campus," says the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Johnson, who entered his senior season with a 30-2 career record and is rated the nation's No. 27 prep prospect in the Class of 2004 by "When I faced him, I wasn't going to let him do that to me so I drilled him in the arm. Next time up, he didn't roll up his sleeves. It's not something I like doing, but sometimes it's needed."

That kind of no-fear attitude is a big reason why Johnson is considered one of the top pitchers in the country and a possible early-round pick in this summer's Major League Baseball Draft.

Of course, it also helps that he has a four-pitch arsenal, highlighted by a four-seam fastball that was clocked at 96 mph during last summer's Major League Scouting Bureau at Marist College, a camp designed to give scouts a look at the top players in New York. Johnson also throws a slider and a changeup to go along with a two-seam fastball that runs inside on righties.

East Islip legendary baseball coach Sal Ciampi recognized Johnson's demeanor and talent when he selected the hurler to play on varsity as an eighth-grader. Ciampi, who entered his 31st year as head coach of the Redmen this spring with a career record of 585-174-1, is a superb judge of talent. After all, you don't win two state titles (1981 and 1991), three Long Island championships, five Suffolk County crowns and 21 league titles by accident.

So when a player earns a spot on Ciampi's varsity squad before he's even reached high school, he's got to be something special.

Johnson's first-ever varsity appearance was against Copiague High, and he didn't disappoint, striking out two Eagles in one inning of work. Johnson went 1-0 that season, allowing three earned runs in 11.1 innings for an ERA of 1.85 while striking out 10 and walking six. Pretty solid numbers for an eighth-grader who was throwing only fastballs.

"For a young kid, he did pretty well," says Ciampi. "At that time, we knew he was something special, and he was still a young kid."

Johnson was so impressive his first year that he caught the eye of then-Bellport High pitching coach Neal Heaton, who pitched in the big leagues for seven teams in 12 seasons, earning an All-Star spot in 1990 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Heaton told Ciampi he'd love to work with Johnson, and the two have been fine-tuning Johnson's game ever since.

"He's helped me a lot with my balance and overall pitching motion," says Johnson, who will turn 18 on July 23. "He showed me a slider and a changeup because my curve wasn't really good. It's always better to have something to show them."

Johnson showed plenty during his freshman season, capturing Suffolk League III MVP honors after going 10-1 with a 0.66 ERA, two shutouts, 63 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 63.1 innings pitched.

He followed that up with an even better sophomore season, earning the Paul Gibson Award as Suffolk County's top pitcher. As a sophomore, Johnson went 9-1 with five shutouts, three no-hitters and one save while giving up just five earned runs in 65.1 innings of work for an unbelievable 0.54 ERA. His reputation as a power pitcher also continued to grow as he fanned 91 batters while walking 16.

But the Redmen lost to Brentwood High in the 2002 Suffolk County quarterfinals. To a competitor like Johnson, all those impressive numbers meant nothing without advancing in the playoffs.

"I'm not all about that personal stuff," says Johnson, who also started at quarterback for the East Islip football team the past three seasons. "I'm about the team winning. [The Paul Gibson Award is] a great award and I appreciate it, but I would have rather had the team awards. I'd rather have the county championship.

"I hate losing, no matter what," adds Johnson, whose favorite player is Roger Clemens because he admires the Rocket's work ethic and intimidation. "It could be anything, I just hate losing. But I won't be a sore loser."

No, just a pitcher who'll do whatever it takes to get his team over the hump. Johnson simply dominated the competition during his junior season, going 10-0 and allowing five earned runs in 70 innings for a 0.49 ERA. He also recorded six shutouts and struck out 118 batters while walking just 18.

Those numbers earned Johnson his second straight Paul Gibson Award, but it was his performances in the postseason last year that helped cement his star status. Johnson tossed a no-hitter to defeat Newfield High, 6-0, in the second round of the Suffolk County playoffs, then followed that up with a 10-0 shutout victory over Smithtown High in the championship game, winning the county playoff MVP award in the process.

Performances like those are why Ciampi considers Johnson a throwback. And Ciampi should know since he was the starting guard and co-captain for the 1965 Purdue University football team and blocked for Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese. Ciampi also coached former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason in both football and baseball at East Islip, and Esiason even won the Carl Yastrzemski Award in 1979 as the top baseball player in Suffolk County.

"Brian could play with us in the 1960s," says Ciampi. "His attitude could be with us. He would be a kid that could blend in because of his toughness. He's like Boomer because when the game's on the line, they want the ball. That's what you can see. They want to be in that position."

As of press time, Johnson was considering junior colleges in Florida such as Indian River, Chipola, Gulf Coast and Manatee, as well as four-year programs like Florida and Tennessee. He could also be a top draft pick and go the pro route, which is why it's nice to have a former major leaguer like Heaton giving advice.

"He says to never look ahead to the draft because anything can happen in the draft," says Johnson. "Until the time comes, just do your best on the mound."

That's a not-so-pleasant prospect for East Islip opponents this season.

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