July 2, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
From Opening Day, Kel Johnson electrified Georgia Tech fans with his power.
On Thursday night, Johnson will get the opportunity to electrify fans nationwide when he takes his cuts in the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. The event begins at 8:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on ESPN.
Tech’s talented freshman is part of a powerful octet of the nation’s top collegiate sluggers, a group that includes Eric Gutierrez of Texas Tech, the 2014 runner-up, ACC rivals Will Craig (Wake Forest), Zack Collins (Miami), and Joe Dunand (NC State), Mercer’s Kyle Lewis, BYU’s Colton Shaver, and North Dakota’s Jeff Campbell.
Getting to cut loose in front of a national television audience is just the latest honor for Johnson, who this summer has been named to the ACC All-Freshman Team, the Freshman All-America team and, this week, the All-ACC Academic Team.
Johnson nearly jumped out of his shoes upon receiving the invitation.
“I was definitely very grateful. Being a guy who enjoys hitting the long ball, I said, ‘Absolutely! That sounds like a lot of fun, sounds like a great experience,’” he said, in response to the “out-of-the-blue” phone call informing him of the invite. “Home Run Derby is just that. It’s light-hearted, It’s fun. You go out there and have a good time, try to see a pitch you can drive and hit it out of the ballpark over and over.”
Johnson, whose 10 home runs led all ACC freshmen and was second on the Jackets (A.J. Murray had 15) despite an ankle injury that forced him to miss 13 games and slowed him the remainder of the season, will be the fourth Yellow Jacket to appear in the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, and will be the third in four years, following Matt Skole (2010), Daniel Palka (2012) and Matt Gonzalez (2013), who finished as runner-up.
“I actually was talking to my parents about that. I was like, ‘You know Georgia Tech’s put a few guys in this event. It’s really an honor,’” Johnson said. “To be able to step up and be here and get a chance to carry on this tradition is definitely an honor. I’m very excited and blessed to have this opportunity. I can’t wait to get out there.”
The experience won’t be new for the Palmetto, Ga., native. He’s already been in that spotlight, and on the biggest Home Run Derby stage there is — taking part of the 2013 Major League Home Run Derby as part of MLB’s All-Star Game festivities, at Citi Field in New York.
“If I had to put my finger on the most dream-like night of my life I would say it was the Home Run Derby at Citi Field,” Johnson recalled. “That was, once again, just something that came out of the blue. I heard about a week ahead of time. I got to go up there and hang out, basically just like I was one of the National League All-Stars. I had a National League All-Star uniform, I had my own locker, I got to sit on the field next to [Washington Nationals outfielder] Bryce Harper and [New York Mets third baseman] David Wright. It was a phenomenal experience. [Atlanta Braves first baseman] Freddie Freeman, [then-Atlanta Braves closer] Craig Kimbrel they come up to you and say, ‘Hey, what’s up, man? I see you have a Braves patch on your jersey.’ I told them, ‘Yeah, I’m from Atlanta.’ It was just chit-chatting with the guys. It was just absolutely cool being a baseball fan like I am, seeing all these guys who I really look up to.”
Showtime was even more memorable.
“Actually hitting in the Derby in front of 50,000 fans was just phenomenal. It was different than anything I’d ever done,” he said. “It was an adrenaline high just being out there. It was intimidating the first few swings. But then I was able to settle in, find my groove and feed off the audience, get that positive adrenaline rather than let it be an intimidation. By the time it was over I didn’t want to leave. I am super-excited to get back out there and hit in the Derby. It’s always a blast. I hope I can find a groove this time as well.”
Johnson’s power display helped him get the fans on his side.
“I know me and Jacob Gatewood, my counterpart in the high school part of that derby, actually got a standing ovation at the end of our rounds,” he said. “Everybody was on their feet. Everybody was excited. I believe that [Yoenis] Cespedes (the winner of the MLB Home Run Derby) and I were the two guys to hit balls into the third deck of Citi Field. When I hit one into the third deck that’s when the fans really got into it. They LOVED that, seeing a high school guy do that. It was super-awesome, a very cool experience, no doubt.”
In Omaha, Johnson will try to repeat that experience taking aim at the pitches of Lloyd Thompson, who threw to him while he was in high school.
In addition to having fun, he knows he needs to keep his cool even during those stretches when he’s not necessarily in the groove.
“You can’t be locked in the whole time,” he said. “That’s the hardest part, when you get in that bad few swings, the little funk that is bound to come in Home Run Derby. You’re going to have the little bad funk where you get two or three outs in a row. The key is just minimize that. I would say ‘minimize,’ that’s the key word. The one thing that normally comes with that is you start expanding. You start panicking so you start swinging at bad pitches that are low or outside. So when it starts going south, step out of the box, take a deep breath, calm the nerves to get back in there and see a pitch you can drive and trust the nice, smooth swing that works.
“Don’t try to do too much,” he added. “Just because you got out a couple of times, if you keep swinging harder and harder it’s like a snowball. It’s just going to get bigger as it rolls. So just step back, relax and get back to what got you there.”