TGW: Raising Kel

April 1, 2016

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Kel Johnson is a really nice guy.

Most opposing ACC teams probably don’t know that primarily because most of them didn’t see him last year. Of course, once they do they may not find him him so pleasant.

The same can be said of No. 18 Georgia Tech, which heads into this weekend’s series against Coastal Division rival Duke having won seven of eight and having outscored their opponents 66-28, and having allowed only one run over the last 19 innings of play. First pitch is at 7 p.m. on Friday, 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Johnson and Co. simply aren’t playing well with others of late. Blame it on the weekend three weeks back in Tallahassee, when they were swept by Florida State, then the 14-3 midweek shellacking against Auburn.

“We had some really good practices that [next] week,” said the sophomore outfielder. “We got serious, we started really grinding and saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of talent. We don’t need to be nice guys who are getting slapped around and not getting some intensity and fighting back.’ We really stepped up our attack against other teams and I believe the results have shown for themselves.”

The Jackets have lost once since, taking five of six in conference play, including winning last weekend’s series at No. 3 North Carolina, and have moved back into the top 25. They showed their orneriness in answering the Tar Heels’ 8-0 game-two shutout with a 6-0 whitewash of their own in Saturday’s series finale to take the series.

“I think we played real well up there in North Carolina,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t be happier with how the team’s looking, how everything’s coming along, the team cohesion, the chemistry throughout everybody. We’re just trying to take that same attack into the Duke series this weekend at home. Just drive the baseball, and we’re hoping our pitchers continue to do what they’ve been doing. Just get after them early.”

Duke will be a test, as Blue Devils pitchers have pitched to the fifth-lowest opposing batting average in the conference (.236, tied with Clemson) and have allowed the fewest home runs (seven, tied with Boston College and Notre Dame).

Johnson has enters the weekend riding a career-high 19-game hitting steak, during which he’s batting .411, with four homers and 21 RBIs — 11 of them coming over the last six games. He is leading the team in slugging percentage (.652, 75 points higher than the nearest Jacket, Connor Justus), is second on the team in average (.380, one point behind Justus), and is third in on-base percentage (.447, behind Justus and Carter Hall).

He has been the centerpiece of the devastating 3-4-5 attack in the heart of the Georgia Tech order with senior Matt Gonzalez and freshman catcher Joey Bart.

“I think that bat has really come alive,” said Coach Danny Hall. “He’s getting a lot of key hits for us and some other guys, Gonzalez in front of him has hit will, Joey Bart’s hit well behind him. Those three guys bunched together have done a great job of either knocking in runs or producing runs for us.

“It makes it tough on [opposing pitchers],” Hall added. “They have to make pitches to all those guys and if they are careful, Kel’s taken a lot of walks, then they have to deal with Joey. So it’s been a good little trio.”

It almost makes you feel sorry for opposing pitchers.

Almost.

Then, again, in baseball there’s no room for mercy.

Johnson never saw any during his final 19 games last season, when, after coming back from a high-ankle sprain suffered on March 21 against North Carolina, that cost him 13 games, he batted .141 with a .214 slugging average and a .359 on-base percentage, getting nine hits (four for extra bases — a double and three homers) vs. 26 strikeouts. Prior to the injury he had been hitting .379, with a .710 slugging average, a .443 on-base percentage and 36 hits, 16 for extra bases (eight doubles, a triple and seven homers), vs. 29 K’s.

He never made excuses when he struggled and he’s not making any apologies now as he makes opposing pitchers struggle.

He’s simply working to get better and, actually, is quite respectful of his counterparts.

“I think I’ve learned a lot over the last year to really give me a chance to succeed against the level of arms you face in college, the level of competition you face,” he said. “I believe my body has adapted to the new requirements in college baseball and I’ve gotten more durable so I think that definitely there has been a lot over the past year that has shaped me. Every year throughout my career I could look back and say I’ve come a long way in one year. Every year plays a big part in your development as a baseball player and shaping you and your career.

“The other factor is there was an injury that hampered my season last season,” he added. “I DO think that experience has made me a better player now than I was even at the beginning of last year.”

Johnson is looking a lot like he did last year prior to March 21. He has hit in 21 of the Jackets’ 22 games this season, last going hitless on Feb. 24, against Georgia Southern in Statesboro, enduring an 0-for-7 day in the 16-inning marathon win — although he still used one of those outs to drive in the game-tying run in the seventh inning.

He tipped his hat to the GSU pitchers because those games happen. That’s baseball.

“This last game against game at Georgia Southern I did struggle,” he said. “Last year I had some good hits against them. I just took the same approach I take into all my games — consistent preparation. Nothing really changed. Just taking the same approach and being consistent.”

He also didn’t gloat after hammering a seventh-inning blast to left to put an exclamation point on Tech’s 6-1 win over the Eagles on Wednesday. It was third round-tripper and eighth RBI in four games against them.

He simply made the necessary adjustments. That’s baseball, too.

“Those first few games of the season I was settling in, finding my swing, finding my approach,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that game was necessarily any turning point or any mental realization. It was more or less just me settling in and getting everything working and getting consistent doing what I do.”

That also includes driving in runs in big spots. Of his team-leading 26 RBIs, six of them have been game-winners. He credits the improvement in clutch hitting, as he does in so many facets of his game, to finding the proper mental approach.

“When I was younger I would really get worked up and could cause failure in big situations due to getting nervous or getting away from my approach or getting other things in my head that don’t belong there,” said Johnson, who is hitting .326 (14-for-43) with runners in scoring position. “This year in those situations, I just go up there, have fun, have confidence in my preparation, have confidence I can succeed and I don’t need to do anything extra. Just go up there, have fun and play ball.”

Johnson’s having fun in every aspect of the game. He’s even 2-for-2 in stolen bases. That’s two more success — two more attempts for that matter — than he had last year.

“One of those may have come on a double-steal with Matt Gonzalez out front of me, which helps me out,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m trying to improve every aspect of my game, trying to help the team in every aspect, trying to be solid on defense, on the basepaths, at the plate. Trying to be a solid overall baseball player, not just a one-tool guy.”

He’s especially solid on defense, as he’s made himself right at home in right field. He’ll begin play Friday with one error in 71 chances over his first two seasons — it came against Auburn at Russ Chandler on March 15 — with three assists.

“It’s my favorite place to play on the field. I’ve been a corner outfielder throughout my whole career,” said Johnson, who said he last played anywhere but corner outfield at age 14 with East Cobb. “I’m comfortable there. That’s where I like to play and I’m doing everything I can to be a solid outfielder and help my team.”

Mentally happy and physically healthy is not good news for those ACC opponents that didn’t get to experience Johnson full-on last year. He’s excited to improve and to see and sample all those conference ball parks.

“It’s nice to be back healthy,” he said. “I’ll continue to strive to be the best player that I can possibly be, whatever that may be. I don’t put a ceiling on what I can do just like I don’t put a ceiling on what this team can do. We’re a talented group and I have high expectations.”

So does Hall. He is excited to observe it all from his top step of the dugout.

“He’s a year older, he’s stronger, he just continues to get better,” said Hall. “He’s worked very hard at all phases of his game. He’s playing the best defense that I’ve seen him play. He’s playing like he’s very comfortable out there. So it’s good to see him getting back to where he was.”

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