SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. -- During his freshman year at the University of Rhode Island, reliever Nick Johnson barely registered a blip on the proverbial radar screen.
Johnson, a Worcester native and a Worcester Academy alumnus, worked a mere 5-1/3 innings and compiled a bloated 6.75 ERA.
As a sophomore, Johnson showed improvement.
Coach Ralph Cerrato called on him for 19 relief appearances encompassing 31-1/3 innings, the most by all URI relievers. Johnson finished last season with a 2-1 record and a respectable 3.16 ERA.
But what Johnson did during his first season with the Ocean State Waves was baseball’s equivalent of the distance between the Earth and the moon.
Johnson wrapped his season having morphed into one of the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s most effective relievers.
His final record was 1-2 with two saves. But in 33-2/3 innings over 21 RAs, his ERA was a distinctly-improved 1.87; he only walked eight but fanned 46; his OBA was a superb .189; and his WHIP was a microscopic 0.92.
“It was just a lot of hard work during the off-season and a lot of real mental focus,” Johnson said regarding reasons why he was a completely different and very reliable reliever. “My freshman year was pretty tough for me. I was lights out one outing and then the next outing I would be all over the place. I wasn’t the same person on the mound.
“I pitched in Connecticut last summer in the Futures League and had a pretty good summer and got confidence on the mound. I brought that new-found confidence with me back to URI in the fall. I was working as hard as I ever have in my life – getting stronger, losing bad weight and putting on good weight.”
Reality check: All that work notwithstanding, reality reared its ugly head once the Rams began their season.
“I got my crater rocked when we went to Maryland for our second opening series,” said Johnson. “I came in and gave up a grand slam. We had a three-run lead and the grand slam enabled them to win the game. After that, there was a huge checking point in my career.
“I just thought to myself I’ve been getting told by my coaches what it takes but it’s the mental side that needs to be locked in. The physical aspect is there but the mental game has completely changed me.”
Grasping the importance of the mental side of baseball was one reason why Waves coach Jim Sauro labeled Johnson a “bulldog.”
“When you play 50 games in the summer, in the hot sun, he never complains,” said Sauro. “He always does his running and is tough as nails. He’s a bulldog.
“With his attitude and work ethic he’s a kid that wants to play every day. He’s always looking to get better. Those intangibles plus talent can take you a long way.”
Then, Sauro used a word that won’t be found in any dictionary to describe Johnson.
“He’s big, strong and fast,” said Sauro. “Due to his size (6-3, 210) and strength, he has what I call ‘competability.”
Johnson uses a changeup that improved over the course of the summer. But he used his slider to set up his fastball.
“His command (see Johnson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio) of his fastball is phenomenal,” said Sauro. “He can move it in and out and up and down.”
Adding length to his fastball: One reason Johnson’s fastball was so effective was that he added eight miles per hour, from 85 to 93, which is a significant difference especially when you factor in command and control.
“It has a lot to do with training and a lot to do with my arm really opening up, having pitched 30-odd innings during the spring and going into the 60s now,” said Johnson. “When your arm opens up, it becomes looser. Ever since that game at Maryland, it’s been like another work ethic.”
Johnson’s work ethic also applies to what he does in the weight room.
“When people talk about the weight room, it’s not just pounding weights,” said Sauro. “With Nick, it’s baseball specific. He works on his abs, his legs and his shoulders.
“He has that football mentality because he played football at Worcester Academy.”
Baseball-specific work in a weight room is a necessity considering throwing a baseball is to an extent something the human arm wasn’t designed to do (read slider, splitter, curveball, etc.).
“Throwing a baseball is probably the most unnatural movement for the human body,” said Johnson. “For that you need the tiny muscles in your body to be at their strongest when you need them to be strongest.
“It’s those tiny muscles in the rotator cuff and the core strength you’re going to need. Your lung capacity needs to be outstanding if you want to perform the way you can perform.
“The little drills that you think aren’t doing anything for you, you do them over and over,” continued Johnson. “It’s those small muscles that are going to make the difference at the next level. It’s not how ripped you look. You have to be flexible and you need everything in between those big muscles to be strong and firm so that those big muscles can work the way they should.”
What’s between the ears counts: Almost sounds like Johnson has designs on becoming a physical therapist. But, again, Johnson couldn’t stress enough the importance of having the right mental attitude.
“It’s all mentality when you’re on the mound,” he said. “When I get on the mound, I battle with the hitter. It’s a fight. On that first pitch, I take command of the inside part of the plate. If I miss inside I’m going to hit the guy. I’m not going to try to hit him but I’m not going to leave one over the plate.
“It’s the mentality I’ve adopted on the mound. It’s a competitive, locked-in, strong, physical appearance. The hitter can’t faze me. He can step out and take his time. When you have that mentality and you’re locked in on the mound, it gives you more adrenaline to throw that next pitch even harder.”
Which is exactly what Johnson did this season.