By Chad Courrier firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — Nolan Johnson is the Minnesota State baseball team’s Joe Mauer, pre-2014.
Johnson is the Mavericks’ top hitter and primary catcher, playing in nearly every game. (OK, that’s where the comparison goes awry.)
“I do a lot of stretching,” Johnson said. “I want to play every game and contribute in any way I can. I know the pitchers, and I feel bad if I’m not out there with them.”
Johnson will be behind the plate and batting fourth when the Mavericks (41-9) take on Emporia State today in the opening round of the Central Region tournament at Russellville, Ark. The Mavericks are the defending champions in the double-elimination tournament, which runs through Sunday.
It’s the ninth straight national-tournament appearance for Minnesota State, and it will be the third time for Johnson.
“A lot of the guys were on the team last year, and I think that experience makes a big difference,” Johnson said. “These guys have played in a lot of important games.”
It was barely newsworthy when Johnson came to Minnesota State. He was a shortstop and quarterback during his high-school days at Bloomington Jefferson. A history of nagging injuries and concussions limited his options, and even during a redshirt season at Minnesota State, he suffered a concussion while catching in the bullpen.
“We definitely had a lot of questions,” Minnesota State coach Matt Magers said. “We’ve had a pretty good run of catchers here, but we just didn’t know if he’d be durable.”
Those fears were quickly eased. Working closely with assistant coach Tink Larson on catching skills, Johnson started 55 of 58 games as a freshman, then 47 of 49 as a sophomore. This season, he’s been back there in every game but one, not even taking time off during back-to-back doubleheaders.
“If a guy can do it, and he wants to do it, let’s do it,” Magers said. “He has the flexibility to do it.”
Johnson batted .343 in his first season, .359 last season. He’s up to .386 this season, with 20 doubles, three triples, five home runs and 47 RBIs, bringing his career totals to 50 doubles, six triples, 11 home runs and 115 RBIs.
He’s also won several conference and regional Gold Glove awards for his defensive prowess.
“He doesn’t get caught up in big situations, whether it be throwing a guy out or coming up with a big hit,” Magers said. “People don’t realize how much goes into playing catcher, physically and mentally.”
The Mavericks may need a spark going into the national tournament. Minnesota State, which averages 7.6 runs per game, scored just one run in two recent Northern Sun tournament games, sandwiched around a 17-run effort.
With a team earned-run average of 3.09, keyed by top starters Jason Hoppe and Bryce Bellin, the Mavericks don’t normally need a ton of runs. Max Waletich is batting .366, with Todd Standish next at .359. Stetson Olson leads the team with 12 homers and 51 RBIs.
“We need to find some consistency,” Magers said. “Traditionally, we win those close games. We’re the defending champions, and that means something. Some of the other teams don’t have that experience.”