The Mariners' Backstop of the Future?

APPLETON, Wisc. - The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, as advertised, have had an outstanding month of April. They're boasting a 10-4 record, batting .294 as a team and have two stud prospects - Matt Tuiasosopo and Yung-Chi Chen - that have certainly not disappointed. But with these expectations, there have certainly been a handful of surprises.

Starting pitcher Jason Snyder has started 3-0, the teams' versatility has proven especially vital, and the Rattlers relief has been stellar, posting a 2.14 ERA.

But none of these surprises quite compare to the emergence of second-year catcher Rob Johnson.

The Seattle Mariner's 4th round selection a year ago has been remarkable to start the young season. Through games played Thursday, April 21, Johnson is hitting .333 (13-39) with a home run and nine runs batted in.

How has this offensive burst settled in with Johnson?

"I've felt pretty good, working with our hitting coach, Tommy Cruz," said Johnson, who already has a three-hit and four-hit game to his credit this season. "He's helped me with a lot of stuff, trying to keep my swing short, and just staying down through the ball."

But if it's possible for his defense to be his most impressive attribute, then it has been just that - impressive. The 23-year-old has thrown out nearly 38 percent of attempted base-stealers (6-16), and picked off two runners at first base.

What's the secret behind his flashy defense?

"Well, you know, you have to practice the plays, you have to make good throws, and work on your footwork," said the Saddleback Junior College graduate. "But at the same time you can't do that every time, so when the opportunity arises you have to take advantage."

The numbers Johnson has put up thus far haven't been surprising given how high he was taken in the draft. Some had already begun to doubt he could live up to his potential, despite playing half-year playing pro ball.

What has Johnson done to improve his game since being drafted?

"Honestly, everything," he said. "We have great catching coordinators in our organization, they've helped me immensely with my catching, my receiving, as well as my hitting. We have some great hitting instructors as well, so we changed my swing a little bit, and it's worked out for the better thus far."

The Timber Rattlers have begun the 2005 season quite nicely, due to the fabulous play out of the expected stars and the somewhat suprising performances of others. It's been something Johnson has enjoyed watching.

"My biggest goal for this year - gain the respect of my pitching staff," said Johnson, a Butte, Montana native. "I want them to have complete trust in me and continue to put up wins."

If there is one thing the Rattlers' catcher has earned, it's the respect of his teammates, coaches and Wisconsin faithful. All will agree; the promising bounce is back in the step of this Mariners' prospect, and it's safe to say it's going to be a fun season behind the plate in Wisconsin.

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