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Former Golden Bear Johnston was SCSU's `Saver'

POSTED July 10, 2011
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

                              Former Golden Bear Johnston was SCSU's `Saver' 

            THOMASTON - By any standards Mike Johnston had an outstanding baseball career at Thomaston High that included All-State honors and a spot on the Berkshire League All-Star team for three years.  But even he admits the college career was unexpected.

            Johnston, a 2007 THS graduate, capped of superb four years with a brilliant senior season for Southern Connecticut State University recently, leading the nation in Division II with a school record 16 saves.

            Johnston’s performance helped the Owls to a spot in the national semifinals and a final record of 45-9-1, a school record for single season wins. The Owls were the Northeast-10 regular season champions and the No. 1 ranked team in New England.

            “Coming from Thomaston a lot us had big dreams but nobody knew if it could happen,” Johnston said. “We are a small town and there aren’t a lot of players to look back on (who excelled in college).  “I went out and hoped for the best that everything I wanted to happen would come true. I did what I wanted to do.”  

            Maybe even more. To lead the country in saves wasn’t necessarily on the agenda.

            “I knew I was up there but I was sitting in the athletic center one day on the school web site and saw the headline, `Johnston lead country in saves,’ and it shocked me,” Johnston said. “It’s awesome.”

            Johnston’s statistics explain the save success. He made 23 appearances and tossed 37.1 innings, allowing just 21 hits and five runs while striking out 42 and walking just six. He finished with a 2-1 record.

            The 6-foot-1, 250 lb. right hander picked up two of his saves in the national tournament. Against. No. 1 Grand Valley State, Johnston preserved an 8-6 victory pitching 11/3 innings of hitless ball while striking out two. In a 6-4 win over Sonoma State he pitched two innings of hitless ball.

            “The College World Series was a hell of an experience,” Johnston said. “There were bigger crowds and the fields were gorgeous. It was really exciting. I was really amped up.”

            If Johnston’s level of dominance this season wasn’t expected, his success was. After transferring from UConn-Avery Point after his sophomore season, he posted a 4-1 record with a 1.12 ERA and five saves for the Owls as a junior. He finished with 27 strikeouts in 24 innings.

            The closer role, however, was relatively new. Right up through his time at UConn-Avery Point Johnston was always a starter.

            “When I got (to Southern) coach (Tim Shea) sent me to the pen and saw my style more as a closer,” Johnston said. “He asked me if I wanted a shot at the role and I said yes.”

            Relieving in general and closing in particular are not for everybody. But it did not take Johnston long to soak up the role as closer and bask in it.

            “At first I was hesitant, I was used to being a starter. But, it is a rush,” Johnston said. “I mainly worked on just spotting the fastball but the change-up was working well especially at the end of this season. In the college World Series, I needed that. They have big bats.”

            There were of course changes that had to be made.

            “The biggest change was the mindset,” Johnston said. “When you are a starter, you pace yourself. As a closer you have to go right at hitters. Right away I had much more command of my pitches. I like that pressure. I really enjoyed it. I figured being a closer was a good spot for me.”

            Johnston has one to two semesters to go before graduation with a major in Recreation and Leisure Studies. Eventually he would like to get into the corrections system and run activities for inmates.

            In the meantime, baseball is half on hold, half on hope. He hasn’t played much since the season ended several weeks ago because of work. He has gone to several professional tryouts including one Red Sox camp recently.

            During the College World Series his fastball was clocked at between 88 and 92 mph. The Red Sox had him bringing it in about 90 mph. It is enough to at least elicit a comment.

            “They said I had a strong arm and you never know,” Johnston said. “If we need someone we’ll keep you in mind. So, you never know.”

            Well, Johnston never knew after high school and look how that turned out. In the meantime he can bask in senior season that brought him national recognition. Not bad.     

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