June 19, 2010 10:53:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- R.J. Johnson''s remarkable senior season started with a commitment to make up for his junior year.
The Starkville High graduate had the size, athleticism, and arm strength to be one of the state''s top players. He knew it, and his coaches saw that potential years before the Milwaukee Brewers selected him earlier this month in the 36th round of Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
The Yellow Jackets enjoyed Johnson''s second playoff season during his junior year, but the rangy, multi-positional player wasn''t the standout he would become in his final prep season.
Plate discipline, focus, and unmatched dedication to baseball were missing from Johnson''s game, and it took his first summer of travel baseball to unearth what had been missing.
Last summer, Johnson played for the Mississippi Prospects, an All-Star squad that featured eight 2010 Division 1 signees. Along with Starkville High teammate Nick Brooks, Johnson faced the unfamiliar scenario of having to fight for playing time.
"It''s not your school and you''re not the man when you get out there," Johnson said. "At Starkville High, you know if you have a chance or if you''re going to play. We had (Mississippi State signee) DeMarcus Henderson and (LSU signee) Jacoby Jones, so you weren''t guaranteed anything. After batting .391 my sophomore year and not coming close to that my junior year, coaches remind you of that and you get tired of hearing it. I think that''s what I needed."
The Yellow Jackets needed Johnson to have his best season after losing three of their top five hitters from 2009.
The Dispatch''s 2010 All-Area Large Schools Player of the Year responded with a dynamic season on the mound and at the plate. Johnson batted .493 with 44 RBIs and 13 home runs -- nine more than his previous career high.
On the mound, Johnson struck out 83 and ended the season with a 4-2 record and 2.73 ERA. When Johnson wasn''t pitching, he was entrenched in his third dimension at shortstop.
Starkville High coach Danny Carlisle admits it''s rare to have a team''s best player contribute at a high level in multiple areas.
"Sometimes your pitcher will be your best defender or best hitter, but when you have someone who leads you and is your most valuable player, it''s uncommon in three roles like that," Carlisle said.
Johnson never came off the field in 2010, though he was used to being the bell cow the past two seasons. That doesn''t mean it was easy, as Johnson had to keep his fitness and focus at an optimal level.
He said the toughest part about playing multiple positions is resting his arm after pitching, knowing he also has to be productive at the plate and in the field.
"Baseball is all about consistency," Johnson said. "There''s been moments where I''ve been hot at both, but it''s not always the case. It''s not difficult (playing three roles) because if you''re a player you want to be out there. This year, I just happened to be hot at more than one position more often."
It wasn''t a stroke of luck or a wave of good fortune that led to Johnson''s breakout year, as he came out of the gates with a mix of patience and aggressiveness toward the first pitch. Johnson was Starkville High''s dynamo at the plate, taking advantage of teammate Chuck Tillery''s high on-base percentage in the leadoff spot to become the team''s top run producer.
Carlisle lauds Johnson''s evolution from a "hard thrower" to a pitcher, which he attributes to better work habits. And although Johnson is far from being an emotional, vocal player, his improvement provided a talismanic element the team needed.
"If there is such a thing as a silent team leader, he would be it," Carlisle said. "I wanted him to be a vocal leader, but he did it through example. It''s all about the way he carries himself. You never see him throw a glove or say anything to anybody if there''s an error behind him. It''s like he never panics, and that demeanor is a good thing to have."
Johnson is weighing his options of turning professional or going to college, and he hasn''t set a timetable for a decision. He has offers from Louisiana State-Eunice and Wallace State (Ala.), schools he plans to visit. His dream is to play pro ball, but said he is still 50-50.
"If I did go pro it would help a lot just focusing on one position," he said. "There would be no worry but just to throw strikes and win. Everything is wide open."
1. New Hope beats Leake Central to clinch playoff spot HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Balance on offense fuels MSU's victory against BYU COLLEGE SPORTS
3. EMCC will induct six into Sports Hall of Fame COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Ole Miss feeling good again after big win at home COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Alabama beats Mississippi State in double overtime COLLEGE SPORTS