OMAHA – It happened so fast.
A bloop double, a pop-up that strong winds kept pushing in-ward as left fielder Kevin Graham and shortstop Jacob Gonzalez gave chase.
There was a strikeout, but then a 3-1 count, and when Peyton Stovall turned on a Brandon Johnson fastball that was it.
The Ole Miss bullpen had given up runs, two to be exact.
Much of the pitching talk has centered on starters Dylan DeLucia and Hunter Elliott, but the Ole Miss relievers had not given up a run since the final game of the regular season.
Johnson rebounded quickly with a groundout and a swinging strikeout to secure the Rebels’ 13-5 win over Arkansas on Monday night, moving to 2-0 in the College World Series.
His confidence was far from shaken. He’s already been down that road this year.
Johnson, a senior right-hander from Cottondale, Alabama, began the year strong, but something moved him off his spot.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco says trying to stretch Johnson in different roles, calling on him earlier in close games, may have contributed to struggles that saw his earned run average balloon from less than 1 after the third weekend of SEC play to 6.20 after Mississippi State smacked him around with three runs on three hits and a walk in only an inning of work in the series opener.
“It was kind of a mindset thing. Maybe you’re not as confident in yourself because one goes over the fence, then two, and all of a sudden you look up, and your ERA is 5,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘Am I the pitcher that I was?’”
He obviously wasn’t then, but it wasn’t a long road back.
Johnson said pitching coach Carl Lafferty identified no real mechanical issues.
He did suggest that Johnson throw his breaking pitches harder to get a more consistent shape.
The turnaround wasn’t even a scoreless appearance. It was later in the MSU series, an extra-inning loss in Game 3, in which Johnson allowed a home run.
But it was the only hit and only run he allowed in 3 2-3 innings of work as he walked one and struck out seven.
Days later he pitched a scoreless inning against the Bulldogs in Pearl as the Rebels won the Governor’s Cup game.
That was the beginning of nine scoreless efforts in 10 appearances before Monday night at Charles Scwab Field.
Bianco was almost apologetic for putting his closer in a blowout game, but his guys needed work.
DeLucia and Elliott pitched so well in the super that Ole Miss used only four pitchers. Johnson and freshman middle reliever Mason Nichols — who was scoreless and hitless in 1 2-3 innings before Johnson — hadn’t pitched since the regional at Miami. The majority of the bullpen needed game reps.
It’s different for a closer to enter a game that’s so out of hand.
“Obviously when you run out there the job’s the same, try to get the guy in the box out,” Johnson said, “but when you come into a one- or two-run game your heart is pumping faster.”
For Johnson, the memory of his turnaround is strong.
“My confidence level took off, and I felt like myself out there on the mound.”