Grant Johnson Coming to Grips

If the path to better performance is identifying strengths and weaknesses, Grant Johnson is well on the way. His pitching appearances have included the good (getting out of a bases-loaded jam) and the bad (allowing a bases-clearing triple), but the Double-A Tennessee reliever has a good handle on what he needs to do on the mound.

The 24-year-old Johnson, who was selected in the second round of the 2004 draft by the Cubs, can write his own scouting report.

"I guess it would say average to maybe above-average fastball, good slider at times, and good changeup at times. But for the most part, so far inconsistent, so make him throw strikes until he does," Johnson said.

It's that inconsistency that Johnson is working to change this summer with the Tennessee Smokies.

He has appeared in nine games and has a 5.17 ERA with the club. He has recorded 10 strikeouts and issued seven walks in 15.2 innings of relief and all nine runs that he's surrendered – including three homers – are earned.

Johnson does have a respectable WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.27. In baseball terms, 1.00 or below is excellent and 1.75 or above is poor, so Johnson is in solidly decent territory.

The Notre Dame product started the 2007 season at Daytona in Class High A ball and had a 1-1 record and 3.57 ERA over 22.2 innings pitched.

His goals at the Double-A level are not numerical.

"I just want to throw like I know I can," Johnson says. "I really haven't shown what I can do any year I've been here with the Cubs. I worked hard this off-season, and I was playing pretty well in Daytona.

"But right now, I'm real inconsistent with location. As long as I limit the walks and throw like I know I can, I'm going to be happy and not really too worried about ERA and that kind of stuff right now."

Tennessee's pitching coach, Dennis Lewallyn, has been helping Johnson tinker with his mechanics with the goal of cutting down on walks.

"He's awesome," Johnson said of his pitching coach. "He is real understanding of what's going on and he knows his guys pretty well, so I think with him taking control of all of us, we're a little bit more relaxed. He's got a really good idea. He knows pitching."

Johnson reaped the benefits of the tutelage earlier this month in a June 5 game against the Birmingham Barons.

He came on in relief of Donald Veal and got out of a bases-loaded jam to keep the game within reach for the Smokies.

But on June 22, also in relief of Veal, Johnson gave up a bases-clearing triple against the Huntsville Stars that took the Smokies out of contention to win.

Lewallyn said the difference in the two appearances was mechanical, and he found a willing listener in Johnson.

"That's one of the benefits that I had; because I did everything," Lewallyn explains. "I was a reliever, a starter, a closer, a middle reliever. You just sit down and talk to them, and you talk about how to mentally prepare and obviously physically prepare. At the same time, he's working on a couple of things mechanically as well. You just have to address all angles of it and all aspects, and hopefully it'll slowly come together for him."

Lewallyn said Johnson's mistake against the Stars was that he brought a mechanical mindset to the mound instead of just trusting his pitches.

"(You) work on mechanics in the bullpen," Lewallyn says. "When you go out there in the game, you compete. Once he started doing that, he threw great. He was thinking about things. We work on mechanics and all of that stuff in the bullpen. When you go out there in the game, you've got to go out there and compete."

"It's just like a hitter. He might work on his swing in batting practice. When he goes out there in a game, he's got to work on trying to hit the ball. He can't be thinking about where (his) hands are and if he's getting out too quick, all of those things. That's the transitional period that Grant is in right now. He's doing a few things mechanically, and then he's trying to take it into a ballgame," Lewallyn added.

Johnson, a former starter, also must adjust to pitching in relief and not knowing when his next appearance will be. A reliever might get consecutive days of work or sit for long stretches at a time.

During a recent doubleheader in June, the bullpen sat in foul territory down the right field line with no shield from a late afternoon sun, and a scoreboard that read 96 degrees at game time.

"I'm gradually getting into it," Johnson said of the bullpen. "My first year, I had a little hard time working with it. This year, I'm getting more and more used to it, and it's one of those things that you just kind of try to focus on as much as you can and get into the game as best as you can.

"It's nice because you're more focused on every game ... But at the same time, you're out there at 5 o'clock, it's 96 degrees, and you might not pitch until 8 o'clock at night. You really have to be focused out there to go at it."

Johnson and the other relievers have routines between games to try to stay ready.

"We throw every day," Johnson said. "You get your partner and you throw. He'll get down and have a plate set out there for you so you throw a few flat grounds (ground-level) between every outing. If you haven't thrown in a while, you might get on the mound and throw a little bit, but never too much because you always want to be ready to go.

"When you haven't thrown in awhile, you may get rusty and your first couple of guys out there are kind of tough. But coming out of the bullpen, you don't have the luxury of having a couple of hitters to get ready. You have to be ready on the first guy. It's tough, but you get used to it."

Johnson was a starter at Notre Dame and pitched in the College World Series as a freshman. He came back from shoulder surgery and posted a 6-0 record and 1.87 ERA in 2004 as a sophomore. The Cubs selected Johnson later that year with the 66th overall pick and the first taken by Chicago.

The difference in getting out college hitters – even at the top level such as the CWS – and professional hitters is substantial.

"You've got to be able to command two or three pitches," Johnson said. "With college hitters, you can pretty much rely on one pitch as long as it's a plus pitch. Here, if you only have one good pitch that you're able to get for strikes, they're going to eventually know that and hit everything that you throw up there.

"Along with being able to command two or three pitches, they hit more mistakes. So when you leave something up in the zone, they're going to hit it as opposed to a college hitter who might still swing through it."

Hitters also have access to video on opposing pitchers to study before games so a pitcher's tendencies can be easily dissected.

"It's a challenge, but we have the same stuff on hitters so I think it balances out," Johnson said. "I think the best thing we have is each other. We all kind of tell a guy what their weaknesses are."

In the aforementioned game against the Stars, Johnson faced an old teammate in Steve Sollmann, who likely had some tips for fellow Huntsville hitters.

"I played with him in college," Johnson said. "I'm sure their hitters had an idea of what I am going to throw at them. That's our biggest tool as a team; to rely on each other for information about a different guy."

Johnson also knows exactly what he must do to have more success at the Double-A level.

"When I've thrown strikes, I throw well," he said. "When I don't throw strikes, I get beat up a little bit. Most of my games that I've given up runs have been multiple run games, and it's always because of walks. If I could limit walks, I'd have a lot more success."

Johnson's pitching coach thinks the right-hander has the pitches to succeed at the Double-A level, and a formula is in place to get him to that point.

"He's got an above-average fastball and he's got a slightly above-average breaking ball," Lewallyn said. "His biggest problem – and this is my first year in the organization, but what I've always heard was he didn't throw enough strikes and that was a mechanical thing.

"That's one of the things that we've been working on: getting his mechanics squared away so he can be more consistent."

The second half of the season is underway and the Smokies' staff has emphasized both building on past success and correcting mistakes.

Individual stats don't reset – just the Southern League standings – but the second half is still treated as an overall fresh start.

"Lew was telling us that even if you had a really good start, it matters how you finish," Johnson said. "It holds true in the minor leagues. It shows a lot when you can progress and learn from mistakes in the first half and do better in the second."

The team also knows the big club can come calling at any time. Pitcher Sean Gallagher was summoned to Chicago in early June and is now at Triple-A Iowa, and reliever Billy Petrick followed earlier this week. Outfielder Josh Kroeger and pitcher Geoffrey Jones have also been called up to Triple-A.

"It's exciting," Johnson said. "You get to see someone that you were playing with go up to the big leagues, and it gives you the idea that you are not that far away. You're close. You could be called up at any time. It's exciting for us to see that happen, but at the same time it's a big loss for the team.

"But I think the main consensus on the team is that it's exciting because you know how close you are."

That's the position Lewallyn and Tennessee manager Pat Listach have taken.

"It's part of the game," Listach said. "It all depends on what the big league team needs and we have to play it by ear. If somebody goes to the big leagues from here, we're happy for them, and we try to prepare them to have success up there. If they go to Triple-A, we want them to have success there. It's part of the game."

"That's why it's called player development," Listach added with a smile.

Lewallyn believes the opportunities for pitchers and position players to make a Major League club are much more plentiful now.

"It's easier to get to the big leagues nowadays than it used to be because there're 30 clubs," Lewallyn said. "One aspect that people never talk about that I find very interesting is 40 years ago, 30 years ago, everybody either played football, basketball or baseball. Now you've got tennis, golf, soccer.

"The talent in all sports is diluted a little bit, so it's a little bit easier to get to the big leagues, and I don't mean that as a knock against anybody. I tell every one of those guys – because we all know when I was playing 30 years ago that there were three guys that might make it to the big leagues and everybody knew that – you look around and say that everybody that's got a uniform on has a chance to play in the big leagues.

"You use that as a positive thing. You might be struggling right now and a month from now, all of a sudden if you get hot and you're swinging the bat well or you start making pitches and showing us what got you drafted, you might be in the big leagues," Lewallyn added.

The pitching staff can also look to Mark Holliman for inspiration. The right-hander threw a no-hitter against Huntsville a week ago on June 21. It was just his second win since starting the season 5-0, and he also had three stellar defensive plays in the field while hitting a home run.

Johnson watched the performance from the bullpen and was among the teammates that swarmed Holliman on the mound after the final out.

"It's amazing to watch a game like that, but to have it be one of your own guys, it was awesome," Johnson said. "It was amazing to watch. You never know when something is going to click. This game is always, ‘What have you done for me lately?' You have to keep going at it every day."

And despite the fact that he would be boarding a bus for an overnight ride to Zebulon, N.C., shortly after that game, Lewallyn can't think of a better way to spend time than playing or working in professional baseball.

"I was fortunate enough to play in the big leagues for a year and half, but I played professionally 11 years, six winter balls involved," Lewallyn said. "I've been doing this since 1972, and I have a lot of friends that ask me, ‘What's it like?' I say, ‘It beats working for a living.' And I really believe that.

"This is not a bad way to make a living, because we work eight, nine months out of the year doing something that most people would kill as a little kid to do for a living. So I feel very blessed."

Johnson himself found out how fleeting the game can be when he was at Notre Dame and played in the College World Series.

The Smokies were following the CWS close this year because shortstop Chris Cates, the brother of Smokies second baseman Gary Cates, played for Louisville, one of the eight teams that made the field.

"It's probably one of the top experiences of my life," Johnson said of playing in the CWS in Omaha. "It was my freshman year, so I was a little naïve of the fact that it was that hard to get there. You realize you've got to be good, but you've also got to be lucky to get there. It's unbelievable."

Johnson has another big experience on the horizon. He is scheduled to wed in the off-season on Dec. 8.

"My fiancée is coming down here, so once she gets down I'll be showing her a little bit of Tennessee," Johnson said.

In the meantime, any other downtime the Smokies players can find is spent doing as little as possible.

"Most of the time we're sleeping," Johnson said. "Trying to get some rest or just kind of relaxing. We just get up and hang out until it's time to go and head to the ballpark. There is really not as much downtime as you would think."

When players get to the ballpark, they sometimes learn that one of their old teammates has moved on. That also means new faces will appear.

Last week, new spots on the Tennessee roster were filled by outfielder Tyler Colvin and pitcher Jim Henderson, who were sent to replace Kroeger and Jones.

"You get used to it," Johnson said. "You understand that it's going to happen. I think with the group of guys we have, everybody kind of bonds. The way the minor leagues are, everybody kind of bonds together and rallies around each other. I think having it change so often isn't really a bad thing."

It's a phone call that Lewallyn and Listach look forward to taking, and especially relaying to a Smokies player.

"I've been coaching since 1983 and it thrills me to no end when somebody says, ‘Hey, bring Gallagher into the office and tell him he's going to the big leagues. Bring Geoff Jones into the office and tell him he's going to Triple A. (Or), you're getting Grant Johnson from Daytona Beach,' " Lewallyn said.

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