Padres Prospect Interview: Ben Johnson

Mobile BayBears power hitter and San Diego Padres prospect Ben Johnson has turned a corner. After some initial struggles in his third stint of Southern League play, the right-hander is beginning to hit the ball and hit it hard. <br><br> "I started off kind of slow and I guess about the halfway point I started picking things up," Johnson said.

With months of hitting .210, .245, and a miserable .193 it may have been an understatement that he started slow. And in June it hit an all-time low as he did not hit a single ball out of the park, knocked in just nine runs and struck out 35 times in 88 at bats. For a two month span, Johnson barely topped .220 and he had a nine game span where he collected no hits.

Since then Ben Johnson has been on a tear. He batted .305 in July and through the early part of August Johnson is hitting .333. In fact, Johnson is batting .333 since July 5th after hitting .216 up to that date. His walks have gone up while his strikeouts have gone down and his longest hitless streak during the last month and a half has been three games with the longest stretch where he has not reached base at two games.

"I am trying to make the adjustments as quickly as possible," Johnson said. "I am just trying to stay focused and stay where I am at right now.

"The main adjustment was shortening my swing and trying to make it as quick and compact as possible and trying to stay as aggressive at the plate as I possibly can and not taking good pitches to hit."

It's commonly referred to as the Southern League adjustment. Very few players come into the league with both guns blazing.

It is a league that is defined by its tough travel schedule, humidity and stalwart pitching.

When a trip from Mobile to Carolina takes 12 hours, keeping mentally prepared is a challenge. The longest trip recorded took 15 hours when Mobile had to travel from West Tenn to Orlando.

Temperatures can reach 110 degrees and humidity makes it hard to hold onto both bat and ball. Without the aid of dry dirt it would be next to impossible to even hold the bat through a swing. Even the bats need a lube job with a gob of pine tar within official specifications, as the ball sweats towards the plate and slips off the bat – well maybe that is a bit extreme but the point is made. It is hot and it is humid.

"It makes it a lot harder because I am a guy who does not like to wear batting gloves," Johnson revealed. "It makes it tough. You have to have a lot of dry dirt around."

Then there is the quality pitching. The pitchers have "stuff" according to scouts and farm directors around the league. They may not be savvy yet but the junk they throw is downright nasty.

Now that Johnson has been around the block, he has a better feel and a different attitude.

"I do look at it differently," Johnson confirmed. "I realize that hear you are not to far from the Big Leagues. There are just small adjustments that you need to make to become a more consistent player. Then you can be successful from here on out because there are a lot of guys that I have played with and against that are in the Big Leagues. I feel I have the talent to do it, I just need to put a better approach together and have better seasons."

Selected by Cardinals in fourth round of 1999 draft, Johnson was traded along with right-hander Heathcliff Slocumb to the Padres for catcher Carlos Hernandez and shortstop Nate Tebbs on July 31, 2000.

With three tours of duty in the Southern League, Johnson is ready to move on. Amazingly, he is still only 23 years old. So while he continues to progress, there is not the urgency that may be required of a player fresh out of college.

It does not mean Johnson has not had his fill of Mobile.

"I am ready (to move on)," Johnson said. "It is rough. Today I want to say it is about 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. It starts to take its toll on you towards the end of the season, batting practice everyday and then infield and outfield practice."

If he can continue the torrid pace that has driven his average up, Johnson will get his wish and be shipped on to the next destination – Portland and the Pacific Coast League where the hitters are the ones who shine.

Denis Savage can be reached at denis@sandiegosports.net

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