Junior transfer Brad Johnson, on a 7-for-10 tear over the last three games, has raised his season average to a team-best .400. The right fielder went 4-for-4 in Sunday's 9-5 series-clinching win over Oklahoma, finishing with two runs scored and an RBI while also reaching on a walk. Against Maryland, Johnson was 2-for-3 at the plate from his now-customary sixth spot in the order. He tallied the game's first 3 RBI as West Virginia jumped to an early lead on the way to the 14-2 rout. And, in the middle game of the set against the Sooners, Johnson had an RBI single and a sacrifice fly that plated a run.
Now, lest one get too giddy over the performance of the 6-3, 215-pounder, take note that Johnson has only begun to settle in, playing in just nine games with six starts. He's getting more comfortable in right after starting his Mountaineer career as a corner infielder, and is trying to find his swing amidst high level Big 12 pitching. But the early results, an 8-of-20 effort with two doubles and seven RBI, is as encouraging as anything head coach Randy Mazey has seen from his once-slumping line-up.
"How's Yogi Berra say it?" Mazey asked. "Ninety percent of baseball is 50 percent mental?" Well, sort of. The actual Berra-ism is "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." But the point holds: "The kid's playing with confidence. It's a decision you make, and it's real easy when things are going well," Mazey explained. "But it's pretty tough and you really need it when things aren't going well. He got off to a rough start this season and made a decision that he was going to play loosely and not worry about anything, and go out and do what he does."
Namely, create runs with the sort of relaxed, semi-methodical approach not often found in the college game. Johnson's .500 slugging percentage is second only to clean-up hitter Ryan McBroom, and his .500 on-base percentage is another team-best. Mazey will obviously ride the performance as long as it continues, meaning former starting rightfielder Shaun Wood might be forced into a platoon situation or worse. Wood did get two at-bats late in the game because he hadn't had an opportunity to hit in over the last three contests.
"It's all about getting comfortable," Johnson said. "I haven't got many at-bats all season. It's about having confidence in myself and knowing I can do the job and staying relaxed."
Johnson said he felt himself "click in" against Oklahoma on Saturday while facing Adam Choplick. The 6-8, 261-pound southpaw scattered six hits over seven innings to pick up the 5-3 win over the Mountaineers, but allowed a run-scoring sacrifice fly by Johnson in the top of the second as WVU took a 1-0 lead. Johnson later tied the game at 3-3 in the sixth inning with a two-out single to left center that scored McBroom.
"They had that big lefty on the mound, and I had that RBI single," Johnson said. "From there on, Sunday I felt really good at the plate and coming into this game I felt really good."
Johnson originally signed with Pitt out of West Chester Rustin (Pa.) High. He appeared in just four games with two starts in 2011 before playing one season at USC Sumter, located 45 miles due east of South Carolina's capital of Columbia. There, he played in 41 games, hitting .375 with five home runs, 12 doubles, a triple and 24 RBI to earn First-team All-Junior College Region 10 honors. Mazey's connections throughout baseball, as well as Johnson's desire to play closer to home after an original offer from Florida fell through, aided in his decision to sign with West Virginia.
Now, Mazey's decision to switch to Johnson, along with better situational hitting and the midweek emergence of Ross Vance – paired with Sean Carley's move to the bullpen – has suddenly transformed West Virginia from a team reeling after seven straight losses with no bullpen or hitting confidence to a one that has put up an average of more than seven runs per game in winning four of its last five.
"Our team lost seven in a row. I think today and Sunday were more statement wins," Johnson said. "Maryland has a good RPI. OU is a storied program. To get that series win and carry it over, it was easy for me. I'm a relaxed kinda guy. It's easy for me not to get my head too big or to get too down. I try to stay with the same approach, hit the ball in the middle of the field and stay successful. That's really my job. I feel I have helped some, because it gives some guys confidence and then they're breaking it wide open."
WVU has 16 regular season games remaining – four three-game Big 12 series, and nonconference contests with Marshall (twice, beginning today at 6 p.m.), Virginia Tech (in Princeton, W.Va.) and at Maryland on May 13 to close the non-Big 12 slate.
"He sure has responded," Mazey said of Johnson. "Extra-base hits mean everything. We looked at our team statistics the other day. If you look up walks and extra base hits and compare it to the other team's walks plus extra base hits, if we beat them in that category, our record is like 17-1.
"Offense is contagious. When one guy sees another guy get a swing off, it kinda filters its way through the dugout. That's been our philosophy all along, and it's starting to come to fruition. We just needed a spark, and Ross Vance has given us a spark and Brad Johnson has given us a spark. We needed production out of the bullpen and out of the bottom of the line-up. Now, we're getting that and I think the real Mountaineer baseball team is starting to show up."