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IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME He’s always been told his time will come. Now, Brian Johnson could be Springfield’s first MLB draft pick in 25 years.

By Jack Margaros

His warm ups start nearly an hour and a half before first pitch.

“It’s something I’ve rarely seen,” teammate Brandon Drabinski says.

It was a late-March morning. The Springfield College baseball team started to funnel into Archie Allen Field in preparation for a twin bill against MIT.

Brian Johnson starts rolling his muscles, 15 minutes with a foam roller and five with a lacrosse ball. Next comes mobility exercises and dynamic stretches.

Then he moves to his arms. Resistance bands, wrist weights, a shoulder tube and plyo ball drills.

Now it’s time to throw.

Tosses start as small as a couple paces and build up to as long as 300 feet followed by some pitches from the mound.

Shortly before the national anthem, Johnson emerges from the Pride’s dugout.

He trots slowly to the mound, staring down at his faded and lacerated New Balance cleats.

There is a space reserved for him in the cluster of Noah Bleakley, Ryan Smith and Nick Fazio near the mound. Johnson takes his place and puts his glove at his feet.

Fans in attendance longed for this game – 150 of them packed in the bleachers with anticipation to watch Springfield’s ace. It is Johnson’s first start of 2019 at Archie Allen and one removed from throwing a no-hitter at Emerson six days prior.

Among the spectators is a short, stocky man dressed in a fleece jacket and tattered Memphis Redbirds cap. He sits in a lawn chair to the right of a wooden table occupied by Springfield players keeping stats. A radar gun stands alone to his left.

Johnson toes the rubber and begins methodically attacking MIT’s lineup. The scout closely observes and crafts analysis on the young leftie.

“Nothing really phases him,” Drabinski said. “He has that quiet and competitive cockiness where it’s like, ‘I’m not going to let it be known, but I’m confident in my abilities.’”

Johnson has become accustomed to these kinds of outings. Scouts from six MLB teams flocked to his start against Rutgers-Camden in Florida on March 17, when he pitched six innings of two-run ball. He met with a representative from the Blue Jays in Las Vegas at the 2019 Winter Meetings.

For Johnson, there is a very important day in May approaching rapidly – his college graduation. But there may be an even larger occasion in June.

The MLB Draft.

A dozen teams have shown interest in Brian Johnson.

He might be on the cusp of becoming the first player to be drafted from Springfield College in 25 years.

***

Every young ballplayer envisions themselves in a big-league uniform. It’s a dream that curates in the minds of many on every Little League Opening Day.

Yet it can die just as fast as it was created. Most ballplayers rarely get the opportunity to play past high school.

The odds are even slimmer going from college to pro. In the 2018 MLB Draft, 2.2 percent of draft picks were NCAA participants.

Eleven of the 1,214 picks were from Division-III schools. There were a dozen selected in 2017 and 20 in 2016.

Johnson aspires to join that group in 2019.

Springfield is not a school known for pumping out draft prospects. Just 24 players have been drafted in the program’s 112 seasons of existence, with 13 of them appearing in the majors. Most compete for the Pride under the impression that it’s their last time playing competitive baseball.

“I pretty much came here for education,” Johnson said. “That was the plan at first. Obviously in high school, I didn’t think I was going to get drafted.”

Draft day has not been a day of celebration on Alden Street for over two decades. In 1994, a pair of teammates were selected. Hassan Robinson was taken in the 12th round by the Houston Astros. John Raifstanger followed in the 33rd round with a selection from the Boston Red Sox.

Robinson and Raifstanger appearing in the baseball preview of a 1992 edition of The Springfield Student

Springfield head baseball coach Mark Simeone coached them both as a graduate assistant in the early ‘90s, back when Springfield was a Div. II institution. Simeone worked with the outfielders, which garnered a close relationship with Robinson – the new freshman left fielder in 1991. The relationship was short lived, as Simeone left for his first head coaching gig at American International College in 1993.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Robinson said. “He can connect with you and have those types of conversations where you can relate to him. I think that’s what a lot of players appreciate, and I know that’s what I appreciated when I first started at Springfield.”

Simeone returned to his alma mater four years later. He was appointed Chuck Roys’ successor to take over as the head baseball coach, and has held the title ever since.

Over ten years passed before Simeone received an email from one of his former players. Robinson recommended his former coach take a look at Johnson, who was best friends with Robinson’s nephew, and set to graduate from Nathan Hale-Ray High School (Moodus, Conn.) soon.

“Has is a good baseball man and I know Has wouldn’t just say this guy’s a player if he didn’t do some research,” Simeone said. “He’s the first person who introduced me to who Brian Johnson was.”

Johnson was his school’s best player on both sides of the ball. He led the team in most pitching and offensive categories, despite not leading them past the first round in two state tournament appearances. Still, Johnson had come a long way since his freshman season, where he appeared in only a couple varsity games.

“When Brian came to us as a freshman, he was probably one of the smallest guys that we had,” Rich Gable, Johnson’s high school coach said. “Certainly, the thing that was great about Brian and why he progressed and grew, is that he’s got such great poise and demeanor. He’s confident, he takes things in stride, and he always continues to improve. I saw that at a lower level at high school.”

Johnson did not attend major showcases in high school. His father, Bob Johnson, saw no incentive. “If you’re a good player, they’re going to find you and if you’re good enough, then you’re going to get your shot,” Bob used to tell Brian.

“I always told him go to college for your degree.”

Johnson initiated the search for an acclaimed sport management program and narrowed his list to Springfield College and UMass-Amherst. He met with Simeone to talk about the baseball program while visiting campus and was sold.

The fall of 2015 came, and Johnson became a member of the Springfield College baseball team. He immediately started assuming a large workload as a freshman, but experienced a learning curve. In 25 innings, he sported a less than impressive 6.84 ERA.

In 2017, his sophomore season showed major improvements, as Johnson decreased his ERA by over four runs (2.43) and threw Springfield’s first no-hitter in 16 years. Aside from a perfect game, it’s the best possible performance a pitcher can have -- holding the opponent to zero hits -- and Johnson accomplished it in his second season at the college level.

A leadership role started to develop. Johnson earned a great deal of respect for how well he’d adjusted, and it didn’t happen by accident.

“Brian’s not an outward, vocal guy. He leads by example,” Simeone said. “Anybody who watches him work and sees the time he puts in to preparing his body to pitch, what he does off the field to get ready to go would be the way that Brian Johnson leads.”

Johnson’s performance allowed him admission to the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) to end that summer. At that point, Johnson came to the realization that he had the potential to be something special, and the maroon and white might not be the grave of his baseball career.

“At that level I’m like ‘okay I can stack up to these guys,’” Johnson said. “That was a big leap for me. I didn’t do that great in it, but I learned so much in those three to four weeks and how I could easily stack up to these guys,” Johnson said.

He continued to develop and enjoyed a career season in 2018. He struck out 53 batters in 53.2 innings, while pitching to a 2.18 ERA – all career-bests. Along with teammates Chad Shade and Shawn Babineau – who are also garnering interest from MLB scouts as juniors – Johnson made it to the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) that summer, pitching for the Pittsfield Suns.

***

The Futures League hosts a scout day at the end of its annual All-Star game to showcase its top pitching and offensive talents in front of major league evaluators.

Upon approval from the commissioner, Johnson was selected to be one of about a dozen pitchers to appear at the event. The pitchers are asked to throw just one bullpen of about 10-15 pitches, working in their whole repertoire.

It is a presentation that lasts about five minutes but can determine an entire career.

“It’s the first time I threw in front of scouts,” said Johnson, who quickly noticed he was the only lefty in attendance.

He went through his bullpen and came out satisfied. Johnson topped out at 87 mph and believes he was the second hardest thrower that day.

“I had nothing to lose,” Johnson said. “It was probably my best bullpen I threw in a while. Every pitch was working, and they seemed pretty impressed.”

Johnson walked off the mound more motivated than ever. He knew there was one more aspect to unlock, to transform himself into a legitimate draft prospect. Senior season was on the horizon, and he was determined to not make it his last.

He picked up his phone.

***

Dr. Josh Heenan is the founder and president of Advanced Therapy Performance (ATP), a rehab and training facility in Stamford, Conn. He is a former strength coach at Sacred Heart University with a Doctorate of Integrated and Natural Medicine. He has helped the Sacred Heart baseball program reach new heights and developed multiple MLB draft picks.

Throwing 90 mph is a basic requirement for any pitcher to start gaining serious interest from MLB scouts. Through a decade’s worth of research and development, Heenan has created a system that consistently allows pitchers to reach that threshold.

It’s called the “90 mph Formula” and features a group of measurable data points – like momentum potential, force production, stable power position, force transfer and arm power – one must reach to throw that speed in a healthy way. The proposed metrics correlate with a reduction in ulnar collateral ligament injuries. It protects the most important part of a pitcher.

“You start to see trends in the gym,” Heenan said. “It works as a very unique way to have checks and balances. I thought it was going to be good for the community to share that.”

Johnson had been following Heenan’s work through social media for quite some time, before he decided to shoot him a message.

“He had been adamant that our services were going to be one of the final things to help him unlock the last bit of power so he could try and make a career out of baseball,” Heenan said.

Johnson signed up as a remote programming client. After some initial tests to evaluate his strength, size and mobility movement, ATP devised a workout program.

“Brian knew exactly what he wanted to get out of it, came to us with his goal, and we built a program around those goals and catered that to him,” Heenan said. “It is really geared towards athletes that want to take their performance to the next level and know they are already putting in the hard work they need to reach those goals.”

Once Johnson built up the strength needed to reach the desired metrics, he started to focus on improving mechanics.

Driveline Baseball is at the forefront of baseball research and analytics. Several pros travel to Seattle to dress themselves in spandex geared with sensors that allow Driveline to trace their pitching motions and build analysis from a strictly scientific standpoint.

There have been countless success stories to come out of this warehouse out West, and Johnson wanted to be a part of that family.

Although he did not fly out to the training facility, he was able to accomplish a lot remotely. Johnson purchased several training aides including plyo balls, weighted baseballs, a recovery trampoline and wrist weights to start a program designed to clean up his arm path and increase the engagement of his whole body on the mound.

“In terms of the summer, trying to help out myself without coach being there, it’s much tougher,” Johnson said. “Training remotely allowed me to fix my mechanics. It’s so in depth and in detail.”

He was set -- a duffle bag of about 30 pounds he lugged around -- and ready to begin his most productive offseason.

***

Fall season for Springfield College was rapidly approaching in September. Johnson kept grinding, throwing for an hour, before lifting for an hour and a half, four to five days a week. About a week before he reported, he made a trip to the Field House with teammates Jordan Elkary and Alex Denoyelle.

With Denoyelle set up behind the plate and Elkary manning the radar gun, Johnson tested himself for the first time since his last outing with the Suns. He reared back and fired with intent and maximum force -- something he’d learned was vital through working with Heenan and Driveline.

After the second pitch, the radar gun showed 90 mph.

“I was pumped up,” Johnson said.

He kept going. Kept developing and tirelessly working to increase his velocity for a couple more months. By the end of October, at Springfield’s fall scrimmage against Elms, scouts were in attendance. Johnson was just hoping he could replicate the same velocity he showed in that early September bullpen.

Similar to his scout day in August, he felt good. Although this time, three months later, the velocity was seven mph higher.

Johnson topped out at 94 mph against Elms.

“I’m like ‘No way. Check the gun. It’s got to be broken,’” Johnson said. “Getting from 87 to 90, then getting from 90 to 94 is like the craziest little things. It’s nuts.

That’s baseball. That’s pitching.”

Johnson put himself on the map. It didn’t surprise Heenan.

“The results aren’t uncommon. Brian just happens to be extremely dedicated, so I think his results are going to be more dramatic,” he said.

Drabinski added, “He’s the definition of a gym rat. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve played with. It’s just nonstop. That’s the type of kid he is.”

The interest from scouts skyrocketed. Johnson started becoming familiar with a lot of the New England area evaluators. At the Winter Meetings, where major league and minor league representatives gather in a different location every December to discuss offseason league business, he networked.

More of them started showing up to his starts. The sport he decided to focus on after middle school was looking like it could become a career.

“He continues to blossom every year,” Bob Johnson, a UCONN baseball standout and former MLB draft pick, said. “He plays because he just loves the game. If you don’t love the game, you’re just not going to make it.”

The same scouts, along with trainers, family, and former coaches flooded Brian’s inbox with congratulatory notes when he no-hit Emerson this season on March 24. It marked his second career no-hitter (his first of nine innings), making Johnson the first pitcher in D-III program history to throw multiple no-hitters at Springfield.

“I went and sent a blast text message to all of my players and all of my family to let them know,” Gable said after he found out. “We’re certainly pulling for him around here.”

Johnson’s accumulation of two near perfect performances almost never happened.

In the seventh inning, Ryan McCahan grounded a ball to the right of Noah Bleakley at first base. Johnson blanked and forgot to cover the bag.

“I would have been pissed off at myself,” he said.

Bleakley had enough time to gather the grounder and step on first base for the second out of the inning, and the no-hit bid continued.

“That would have been a horrific way to lose a no-hitter,” Simeone said.

As the ninth inning approached, the pressure of this feat had been building in Johnson’s head for three innings.

“The ninth inning you’re just counting down,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to do a deep breath after every pitch. Not get ahead of myself.”

He punched out CJ Rogers, then induced a groundout for the first two outs. Joe Paladino stepped up as the Lions’ final hope. He was the “short guy” who already struck out three times that game.

“I was going to be mad if this kid got a hit off me,” Johnson said. “I was hoping they wouldn’t bunt.”

He popped his first fastball for a strike, followed by three balls. Johnson worked a full count with another fastball in the strike zone.

“I knew I could do it,” he said.

His last pitch, a curveball, dropped in for strike three.

A phenomenon that occured in the MLB just seven times in the past three seasons, Johnson just completed twice himself in the same time frame.

“It was a sense of relief,” he said. “That’s just a reward for all the work in the offseason.”

***

The odds are stacked against Johnson as a Division-III pitcher coming from a school that has not produced a draft pick in 25 years. Although, it helps that he has ties to the last player who accomplished that feat.

“I think it would be great how the story happened and how everything came together, because that’s what Springfield is all about,” Robinson said. “It was a perfect connection with everything. It connected all the dots.”

It’s easy to call it quits after this spring. The overwhelming majority of players to come through Springfield have. But Johnson is too close to forfeit this opportunity.

“My biggest fear is living with regret and quitting baseball too early, so I just want to see where my body takes me,” he said. “It’s a better story coming from a small school. I love it.”

His father’s proclamation back in high school continues to seize his thoughts.

If you’re a good player, they’re going to find you

And they have.

Credits:

Springfield College Archives, Jack Margaros, Sam Leventhal

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