Ask Hobbs Johnson what drives him, and he can point to two very specific instances. In one, he was an observer.
In the other, he was more of the reason than a participant.
Both are tightly connected.
Johnson, a former pitcher at Rocky Mount High and a current weekend starter for the North Carolina Tar Heels, watched last year as UNC celebrated a super regional victory against Stanford.
It was the end of Johnson’s freshman year at North Carolina. He wasn’t finding much success in the classroom, and even less on the mound.
The coaching staff told him he was a liability. He was nearly kicked off the team.
He was told to go home.
“At that point, it was a real struggle for me,” Johnson said.
But instead of going home, a small piece of home came to him. Former Rocky Mount High pitcher Benton Moss joined the Tar Heels.
The two “brothers” were reunited, just in a shade of blue a little lighter than their alma mater.
Johnson found his form but not without a few bad outings to start the year, and Moss eventually lived up to his high school All-American status.
Together, they have become weekend starters for the Tar Heels.
“We made up our minds that we were going to stay there,” Johnson said. “We weren’t going to have any distractions or let anyone take us out of our role. For me and him, it was like pushing each other the same way we did in high school.”
Johnson led North Carolina in batting average against and finished the year 7-1 with a 1.56 ERA – second-best on the team. Moss wasn’t far behind with a 7-2 record that he said could have easily been 9-1 after tying for the team-lead with 16 starts.
“He helped put things in perspective,” Moss said. “I was just a freshman. I got in there, and I was antsy.”
Both pitchers spent time in middle relief before rejoining the starting rotation and potentially stabilizing the Tar Heels staff for the next two years. They did it with a shared mentality, one that Johnson learned from his struggles.
“He’s been there. He’s done that,” Moss said. “He helped me get to a this-pitch-only mentality.”
When Moss started the year, he was always worried about the next game. He was tight and was concerned as much with the season as a whole as the next pitch he was ready to throw.
Johnson, who needed four As in his summer school classes to remain eligible, knew that worrying about starts or appearances down the road is foolish. He learned from experience that the next start is never guaranteed.
“It puts things in perspective for me,” Moss said. “When I have a bad outing, it could be a lot worse.”
Johnson and Moss share a prayer before every game, appreciative for where they are now and thankful for the opportunity to pitch together – because it nearly didn’t happen.
“We kind of took this year and are pretty much going to consider taking our time at Carolina as a second chance,” Johnson said.
The two work out and threw every day during the year. They’ll have even more time to do that next year when they move in together along with a few other baseball players.
When they had bad outings, and before each hit their stride there were a few, it took words from the other to settle the nerves.
“It meant a lot because it was Hobbs,” Moss said. “He was coming off as being genuine. … He’s a brother of mine. Whenever he’d say something to me, I felt like it had a little more feeling. We’re cut from the same cloth. We are both Rocky Mount boys.”
Moss and Johnson seemed to do everything at the same time, including finding their form. Johnson pointed to a relief outing against then-No. 21 USC as his “big confidence booster.”
He pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings, and despite the fact that the Tar Heels lost, Johnson regained the confidence that he had lost since high school.
“I could get these hitters out,” Johnson said.
Three days later, Moss pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings for his first career victory against Elon University.
By the time the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule was in full swing, Moss and Johnson were starting back-to-back games on the weekend.
Moss made Johnson better, on the field and in the classroom. And Johnson helped ease Moss, who is a Morehead scholar, into college baseball.
“It was comfort more than anything,” Johnson said. “It was almost like a calming thing.”
Johnson’s struggles will never be far out of his mind.
He won’t let them escape, because they are his motivation. He might be far from those struggles when time is considered, but he knows they are never far away.
Moss knows it, too.
“You’re not going to have your stuff perfectly every time,” Moss said. “You have to take the good times with the bad because they’ll both be there. It’s just how you respond which defines how great you can become – how you respond to the good and the bad. He’s definitely a huge reminder of that.”
Sounds more like life advice than baseball advice.
Maybe it’s both.
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or email@example.com