By Brett Friedlander Special to the Free Press
The Mankato Free Press
---- — CARY, N.C. — The secret to Minnesota State’s impressive run to a second straight Division II College World Series isn’t really a secret at all.
It’s pitching. Lots of pitching.
The Mavericks have allowed only seven runs in their eight postseason games so far in sweeping to the NSIC and NCAA regional championships without a loss.
As with most top teams, MSU’s staff features a deep, diverse collection of arms that constantly challenges each other to excel. But there’s also one talented anchor that sets the group apart.
And it’s not Jason Hoppe, who hasn’t allowed a run since April 7, Harvey Martin, the Daktronics Central Region pitcher of the Year, or even reliable closer Mahlon Zimmerman.
It’s catcher Nolan Johnson.
“All of us pitchers owe a lot of our success to him,” said Hoppe, who will draw the starting assignment today when the Mavericks begin their quest for a national championship against Grand Valley State at the USA Baseball Training Complex. First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.
“He calls a great game back there,” Hoppe said of Johnson. “He’s recognizing what the hitters are doing and giving us what we want to throw.
"The connection you have with your catcher is so huge. When he puts down a changeup on 3-2 and that’s what you want to throw, it gives you confidence that he has confidence in your ability to make the pitch.”
Although Johnson’s skill as a receiver might sometimes get overlooked because of the gaudy stats his pitchers have been piling up, his defensive prowess has hardly gone unnoticed. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore has thrown out 16 of the 30 runners that have attempted to steal on him this season to earn a spot on the NSIC Gold Glove Team for the second straight year.
His importance to the Mavericks, however, isn’t limited to his work behind the plate. He’s equally adept standing next to it with a bat in his hands. Johnson has been his team’s best, most consistent hitter all year with a .363 batting average, 21 doubles, three triples and a .592 slugging percentage.
“I was a pitcher, and if you look at Nolan, you wouldn’t think he’d be very good,” Mavericks coach Matt Magers said. “He’s got the old Little League batting stance, straight up-and-down. But he’s the type of hitter that’s going to find a way to get on base.
“I give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches Adam Christ and Tink Larson for the job they’ve done developing him hitting-wise and catching-wise. For me, if Nolan does a great job calling the game and controlling the game, it’s just a feather in our hat if he’s able to hit. And he has ever since Day 1 when he came in.”
Batting mostly in the cleanup spot, Johnson has been one of the few offensive constants in an MSU lineup that sometimes finds it difficult to score runs.
The right-handed hitting Bloomington native was at his best at last week’s NCAA Central Regional, earning tournament MVP honors by going 8 for 18 with two doubles, three runs scored and an RBI.
Johnson said he hopes the 18-hit outburst, that included an 11-run seventh-inning rally and a 17-1 win over St. Cloud State in the region finals, is a sign of things to come for MSU (39-8).
“That’s huge momentum,” Johnson said. “I could finally breathe the last couple innings of the game. We already had our pitching ready to go and we finally started to get some timely hitting, so everything looks like it’s falling together.”
Not only do the Mavericks come into the eight-team, double-elimination national tournament brimming with confidence, they also experience on their side. Seventeen current team members, including Johnson and the majority of his pitching staff, saw action in last year’s CWS, in which MSU equaled its best-ever showing with a third-place finish.
Although the USA Baseball Training Complex is located some 1,200 miles from Mankato, it felt just like home to Johnson and his teammates when their bus pulled into the parking lot for the first time earlier this week.
They’ll need all the positive energy they can muster against a Grand Valley team that beat them 12-0 back on March 11 in Leesburg, Fla.
“It’s calming being here again,” Johnson said. “We know what to expect now. I woke up this morning excited to see the field again. I get goose bumps coming back. I just want to get on the field and start playing again.”