HED:Van Johnson's transformation almost complete
By Mike Talbert
If someone didn't see Van Johnson pitch at the right times last season, he would have had to check the roster to be sure that this was the same 6-foot-3 right-hander from Saltillo who pitched against South Carolina Sunday.
Mississippi State's Johnson now delivers a leaning sidearm that is almost a submarine pitch by the time he releases it.
"The sidearm gives me a lot of run on the ball," Johnson said.
It has been hard to hit when it is working, and it is a new style for the junior that has been working very well lately.
He tried it some last season, but he had to abandon it until he became more comfortable with it. It is not an easy transition for a pitcher with a lifelong traditional overhand delivery that carried him to a 32-8 record under Johnny Bolen at Saltillo High School
Johnson is still working on the new slot, but it is now in the fine-tuning stage. He certainly offered a remarkable contrast Friday when he came to the mound in relief of MSU southpaw Eric DuBose. DuBose developed a blister on his finger in the fifth inning of the SEC series opener against South Carolina.
Johnson gave up only one hit in 3 1/3 innings against the SEC's leading hitting club and struck out seven batters. The only flaw in his performance was that he allowed an inherited runner to score from third. After that, Mississippi State piled on five runs to go from a 3-1 deficit to a 6-3 lead.
Then Johnson followed that up with two innings Sunday to earn a save as No. 18 Mississippi State won 11-8 to take the series from South Carolina. Johnson struck out the side in the ninth.
"Anytime you can do that it is pretty good; that is my best week at Mississippi State," he said.
It earned him SEC pitcher of the week honors. It followed up two relief performances, including a save in a doubleheader Wednesday against Northeast Louisiana. In four appearances totalling nine innings, Johnson (2-1, 3.48 ERA, 3 saves) had 13 strikeouts, only three hits and one unearned run plus a win and two saves.
"He has been on a roll," Mississippi State associate coach Pat McMahon said.
Johnson credits McMahon with the changeover.
"As a freshman, I was kind of struggling, and he had a pitcher (when McMahon was head coach) at Old Dominion who was going through the same thing and tried it. Coach Mac said I had the body for it."
It was tough at first because the change was so radical. Last season, Johnson tried two different deliveries, keeping the overhand delivery for left-handers who can see the sidearm delivery better than right-handers.
Johnson said the two arm slots was causing him some concentration problems so he put it away except for practice until he could go with it full time.
Still, his numbers through his first two years at Mississippi State aren't bad. He had an 8-2 record with six saves and a 2.98 ERA in 42 appearances.
Over the summer, he worked on the sidearm in Alaska. It enabled him to get the new style down, and he developed a new changeup for lefties.
He has pitched in 13 games this year and has worked more innings than any pitcher on the Bulldogs' staff except DuBose. He has been a combination of long relief and stopper.
"I don't know what my role is. I just want to get into the game," Johnson said.
Mike Talbert is a sports writer for the Daily Journal.