A fire-throwing, former Cal Poly baseball closer is looking to add his name to a list that includes Major Leaguers Jered Weaver, Troy Tulowitzki, Barry Zito and Evan Longoria. What do they all have in common with Jeff Johnson, Cal Poly’s devastating ninth inning man last season? Each played in the Big West Conference with 2004 national champion Cal State Fullerton.
Johnson, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., native, was a 10th-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians in the 2011 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Johnson said the opportunity to pitch for the Indians was so alluring that he decided to forgo his final year of eligibility at Cal Poly. The Indians’ farm system has produced Cy Young Award winners Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, in addition to former All-Stars Manny Ramirez, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner.
“The Indians have a great organization,” Johnson said. “They have a great training staff and wonderful facilities. They have made my transition easy and will even pay for me to finish my degree when I am done playing baseball.”
While professional baseball players are routinely drafted out of high school or signed after successful international careers, Johnson credits his three years at Cal Poly for preparing him for the major leagues.
“I didn’t get into a position to be where I am until after my second year at Poly,” Johnson said. “Before my third year, I worked on my mechanic with my teammate Mason Radeke and my fitness with strength coach David Wood. They really helped me improve as a pitcher.”
Johnson’s junior season as a reliever was one of the most dominating in school history. He earned five saves, two wins and a 1.63 ERA, and posted 40 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. His fastball routinely topped out at 95 mph that season.
“Jeff is the kind of baseball we love to recruit here at Cal Poly,” pitching coach Jason Kelly said. “He had talent, but wasn’t the highest rated out of high school. He worked hard every year, worked on his command, and added between 8 and 10 mph to his fastball.”
Johnson’s decision to attend Cal Poly after high school not only excited his coaches, but his mother as well.
“We were thrilled that Jeff decided to attend Cal Poly,” his mother Lucy Johnson said. “It’s a great school with wonderful reputation and campus. It allowed him to play baseball and achieve a dream that he’s had since he was 6 years old.”
Even with all of his success and the bright future that awaits him in professional baseball, Johnson said he is thankful for his three years at Cal Poly. The kinesiology major hopes to continue to work in sports after his baseball career is over. However, regardless of where professional baseball takes him, Johnson said he will always remember his time at Cal Poly fondly.
“I miss being there all the time,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of fun, and I had great coaches and teachers to help in the classroom and on the field. It’s a time of my life that I will never forget.”