Tyler Johnson wasn’t a kid whose life revolved around baseball growing up.
He enjoyed playing, but he didn’t eat, sleep and breathe the sport. Johnson spent a lot of time at the ballpark because he loved it, not because he wanted to earn a scholarship or sign a professional contract one day.
“I was never obsessed with baseball. I just enjoyed doing it. Even in high school, I wasn’t the best at baseball,” Johnson said. “At an early age, I just played because it’s fun. It’s an awesome sport to play.”
That fun was missing during Johnson’s freshman season at South Carolina.
He pitched in only eight games and had a 4.70 ERA in 7 2/3 innings.
Even for a team that was searching for pitching depth, Johnson wasn’t trusted enough to have an opportunity to get outs.
He weighed only 180 pounds, despite being 6-foot-2, and his fastball was hovering around 90 miles per hour, which was not getting the job done as a right-handed pitcher in the SEC.
Rather than transfer to a lower-level school or accept a minimal role, Johnson decided to get to work.
“I got real mad at myself when I sat 49 games my freshman year. It was so frustrating. And it comes to a point where you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘If you don’t change something, you’re not going to play. You’re going to be miserable,’ ” Johnson said. “During my freshman year, I started getting in the weight room more. I knew I wasn’t going to pitch so I started doing that. I just really worked my tail off.”
That hard work continued into the summer as Johnson practically lived in the weight room.
He went from a 180-pound freshman to a 200-pound sophomore. The added muscle added velocity to his fastball, and he became one of the hardest throwers on the team, topping out in the mid to upper 90s.
Still, he struggled early on in 2016, allowing three runs in 1/3 of an inning against The Citadel in one of his first outings of the season. Johnson wondered if all of his hard work would be for nothing.
“At that point, I was clawing for time just to play … And honestly, I thought I’d just get buried and they’d find another option,” Johnson said.
Instead he got another opportunity a week later against Wofford and pitched four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Johnson had nine saves with a 2.42 ERA in 2016 and earned a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National team last summer.
He went from a player without a role at USC to being one of the top closers in college baseball.
“I was able to put back-to-back outings together, and that’s the way baseball works. You’re going to get more opportunities the better you pitch and how dependable you are,” Johnson said. “When we got to SEC play, I was being used more and that’s when it became more of a confidence thing. When I started sitting down SEC teams, I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m really doing some damage here.’ ”
Johnson opened the 2017 season as a preseason All-American but was hampered by injuries and was only able to throw 26 1/3 innings.
He was out nearly six weeks with arm soreness and struggled with command after returning before rounding into form down the stretch.
In his final three outings of the season, Johnson pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He allowed one hit and struck out 12.
“Towards the end of the season when guys were saying how gassed they were getting and their bodies were starting to break down, I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m in midseason form and just getting into a good stretch here,’” Johnson said.
He was hopeful that reaching the semifinals of the SEC tournament would be enough to sneak the Gamecocks into the NCAA tourney, but it was not.
Following the season, Johnson returned home to Virginia, and he has been working out while waiting for the start of the MLB draft. Even though he didn’t dream of getting drafted growing up, he’s definitely excited for the opportunity now.
“I’m trying to keep my mind off of it, playing some golf and stuff,” he said with a laugh. “I’m hearing anything from rounds two to four, so we’ll see where I fall and what happens. Everybody knows the draft is crazy. If there’s anything predictable about the draft, it’s that it’s unpredictable. So we’ll see how it all goes.”
While Johnson is keeping his mind off the draft for now, he admittedly will be following along close on Monday and Tuesday from his house with his family.
“I know as soon as I get a call and knowing how far I’ve come, I’ll probably cry,” he said. “Hopefully there won’t be a lot of people around my house.”
TV: Monday on MLB Network and MLB.com; continues Tuesday and Wednesday on MLB.com
Of note: The first round consists of 30 picks, 27 regular choices and three compensatory selections.