Throwing star: N.C. State's Johnston closing stellar freshman season

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North Carolina State starting pitcher Reid Johnson (29) works from the mound in the third inning against Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference NCAA college baseball tournament, Thursday, May 24, 2018, at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)


Sports Writer

Sunday, May 27, 2018

DURHAM — Reid Johnston was the typical high school pitcher.

A mainstay at third base for Rocky Mount Academy because of his strong throwing arm, Johnston use to blow fastballs past overmatched hitters in the late innings of games. He threw hard and rarely walked batters, displaying a potent mix of heat and precision that made him a standout arm at the high school level.

Johnston would even start primetime games for the Eagles — mostly rivalry games — that would turn into classic pitching duels like the one in late April 2017 against Faith Christian where he and current UNC Wilmington pitcher Landen Roupp each tossed complete games.

Johnston was a pitcher who had enough of a grasp on his task when on the mound that finding success was almost a sure thing. Command came easy. But all of that — a 1.04 ERA, the 81 strikeouts and seven earned runs allowed over 47 innings — took a backseat to his offensive production.

“He’s always had great command,” RMA coach Cameron Ramsey said. “It was nothing for him to throw a seven-inning game, 80-85 pitches, and that’s normal because he keeps the ball around the plate. You can marvel at that, but he was also our best hitter.”

Johnston was named the Telegram’s batter of the year following a 2017 season in which the senior clubbed eight home runs to go with a .419 batting average and 34 RBI — all team highs.

While most, even Johnston himself, saw a strong left-handed hitter with the glove to play a solid third base, N.C. State saw something else. The Wolfpack and their coaching staff saw more than just a kid with a strong arm, and instead saw a bonafide pitcher.

Johnston, who committed as a two-way player, was shuffled into the pitching staff upon arriving on campus, and hasn’t picked up a bat since.

“I’ve always focused on hitting my whole life, and when I got here and realized I could be good pitcher, I quit hitting,” Johnston said last week during the ACC Tournament. “I haven’t touched a bat since September.”

It seems wrong to have a capable bat like that sitting on the shelf, but with the way Johnston’s freshman season is going, it would be a crime to not see the young player on the mound.

The freshman began his college career pitching out of the bullpen for a nationally ranked team. Fast forward to last Thursday, and Johnston was the starter for the Wolfpack’s ACC Tournament opener against Virginia at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Johnston lasted 2 ⅓ innings and allowed two earned runs, three hits and walked a trio of Cavaliers before he was pulled in favor of David Harrison, a fellow freshman and Rocky Mount native who was the ace of the Rocky Mount High staff.

It was an unusual start for the normally strike-firing Johnston. Longtime Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent — a Northern Nash graduate —- praised Johnston’s ability to pound the strike zone and  didn’t hesitate when offering a lofty comparison of his freshman’s pitching style.

“He gets by with command,” Avent said. “Kind of like Greg Maddux.”

Of the 50 pitches Johnston threw in Thursday’s loss, just 24 went for strikes. While the command was missing, the stuff was not. Johnston’s fastball ranged from 88-92 MPH, while his big curveball danced across the zone. Still, he wasn’t pleased with missing his spots.

“It was a cool experience pitching Game 1 of our tournament,” Johnston said. “I normally throw a lot of strikes, but I didn’t have it at all (Thursday). All the other times I pound the zone.”

Just one blemish can’t tarnish a season of stellar outings. Johnston (7-0) is tied for the team lead in wins with seven, while his four saves rank second on the squad. He started as a bullpen arm and was given ample opportunity to finish games.

He proved capable and soon found himself pitching on Fridays to kick off weekend series. He pitched into the fifth inning in five of his past six starts, and owns a 3.13 ERA over 60 ⅓ innings. He has struck out 45 and walked 13.

“I was excited for the opportunity because not many freshmen get that Friday night starting spot,” Johnston said. “It’s been a great first season. From starting out throwing three to four innings a week out of the bullpen, to throwing five to six innings in a start.

“It wasn’t a challenging switch for me because I pitched a bit in high school. The biggest thing has really been not thinking about hitting and instead worrying about going out and doing a good job on the mound.”

Just last year, Ramsey said he would have thought his former player’s best tool was his glove. Ask the Eagles coach now, and Ramsey points to Johnston’s arm. It’s a realization that a number of people have come around to.

He’s always been a phenomenal hitter,” Ramsey said. “When I was talking with people last year I would tell them that his glove is his best attribute, and he gets to (N.C. State) and all of a sudden his arm is his best attribute. I credit that to how hard he worked in the weight room and buying in to what coaches figured his best spot would be.”

Even former teammates aren’t surprised at the RMA product’s success. Roupp, a freshman pitcher at UNC Wilmington who helped Faith Christian win the program’s first state baseball championship in 2017, saw his friend’s emergence on the mound years ago.

And Roupp knows what he’s talking about. A no-doubt pitching prospect growing up, the right-hander was named to the Colonial Athletic Association All-Rookie team as a pitcher. Roupp made 12 starts for the Seahawks and allowed 15 earned runs over 45 ⅔ innings.

“He’s doing pretty good,” said Roupp, who also played with Johnston in travel ball. “I really thought he was going to hit more, but as a pitcher he’s really doing well.”