Missouri State's Johnson ready for big leagues

Missouri State's Johnson ready for big leagues

Published Jun. 5, 2012 11:52 p.m. ET

ST. LOUIS – There's something about inspiration, the way it provides hope and direction and gives purpose to wild fantasies. There's something about a chase toward a goal that makes the dreamer believe anything is possible with focus and a little effort.

It's something Missouri State junior pitcher Pierce Johnson learned at an early age. Baseball is in his blood. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound player grew up in Arvada, Colo., the same Denver suburb where Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay was raised. His father, Don, worked for nine years in the San Diego Padres organization. The sport became his life. Joining a major-league club became his desired destination.

On Monday night, the right-hander's moment arrived. For Johnson, it's all still surreal: He watched the Major League Baseball amateur draft at his apartment in Springfield, Mo., with his teammates a day after the Bears completed their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years. Former pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, a Hall of Famer, approached a dais in Secaucus, N.J., and announced Johnson as the Chicago Cubs' choice for the 43rd overall pick.

Suddenly, one chase was over. Another is set to begin.

"It hasn't hit me yet," Johnson told FOXSportsMidwest.com on Tuesday. "I'm definitely on cloud nine with the excitement of a team picking me and recognizing my talents. It's an awesome feeling. You have to go through it to really experience it."

Few will go through it, and that's part of the reason why Johnson feels on top of everything right now. He, like all who learned their professional destinations the past two days, has gained validation. He has gained confirmation that the life of a dreamer is indeed a worthy one to have.

Yes, the work he put in as a three-year starter at Faith Christian (Colo.) Academy was worth it. Yes, the work toward earning 227 strikeouts over 216 innings in three seasons at Missouri State led to reward. And yes, the work that made him the Bears' highest draftee since the Washington Nationals took Ross Detwiler sixth overall in 2007 has produced expectations that will follow him as he develops within his organization.
But there's excitement in it all, anticipation in those moments when you look toward the future after marking how far you have come. For Johnson, he understands reflection is part of the experience. He came to Missouri State unrefined – "I was definitely a thrower – not a pitcher," he said – and it took time to become the player he is today.

Now, he carries visions of staring down the strike zone at venerable Wrigley Field. He has come far.

"This is a guy who has really grown and improved in three years," Missouri State coach Keith Guttin said. "Great kid, great family. He will continue to get better. His arm works really well. He's got great secondary stuff. He pitched exceptionally well for us."

There were key moments that captured the pitcher's growth over the past two years. Johnson says one happened about halfway through his sophomore season, when he finished 6-5 in 18 appearances with a 4.76 ERA. Gradually, his process on the mound became a routine.  

Meanwhile, Guttin says another happened earlier this spring. On March 23, Johnson struck out a career-high 16 batters in a five-hit, complete-game shutout masterpiece against Creighton in Springfield. The performance left Guttin in awe – "Just a phenomenal effort," the manager said – and he knew what Johnson could accomplish when comfortable.  

"I had good stuff coming in," Johnson said. "But once I got there, they really taught me how to pitch and how to approach the game mentally, how to stay focused and how to approach the game."

True, but he also had help from his peers. Missouri State's starting rotation was among the most feared in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. Johnson (14), sophomore Nick Petree (16) and junior Cody Schumacher (17) combined for 47 of the Bears' 62 starts. They helped Missouri State lead the league in team ERA (2.57) and strikeouts (537).

Petree, for one, finished with a 10-4 record and a 1.01 ERA. He was named The Louisville Slugger NCAA Division I National Player of the Year in late May. By comparison, Johnson went 4-6 with a 2.53 ERA this spring.

Such an environment will only help Johnson in the coming years. His versatility is seen in his scouting report: He throws an effective three-pitch mix that includes a fastball that can reach as fast as 94 mph; his curve ball has movement that can trick batters and serve as his out option; if he stays healthy, he's projected to be a No. 3-level starter in the big leagues.

But Johnson showed valuable traits off the mound as well. He's not a loud leader, but Guttin noticed the player share advice with younger pitchers and other teammates. The moments revealed Johnson's attention to detail.

Johnson conducted himself with a professional's composure when in college. As a result, Guttin predicts his player's adjustment will be minimal in the next stage of his career.  

And what about Johnson's vision for himself?

"Hopefully, in three years, make it to the bigs in whatever role they want me in – whether it's a starter, reliever, I'm up for whatever," he said.

The answer should come as no surprise. After all, baseball – no matter the role – is part of who Johnson is.

He has been inspired all along.