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A few days have passed since the magic carpet postseason baseball ride of the San Diego Padres came to an abrupt end, but the memories live on for relief pitcher Pierce Johnson.
It’s been a decade since Johnson threw his last pitch for Missouri State, finishing off a complete-game victory over Miami on the Hurricanes’ home field in humid south Florida. He was the 43rd player drafted overall in 2012, by the Chicago Cubs, the night the Bears returned from the NCAA regional.
Much like the Padres’ rollercoaster season, Johnson’s career has been a wild and sometimes emotional ride over the last 10 years. I caught up with the 31-year-old right-hander by phone on Thursday from his offseason home in Denver and asked him to reflect upon his journey.
‘It has been quite a ride’
“It has been quite a ride,” Johnson said. “I was thinking about that the other day. It’s crazy. Missouri State was three of the best years of my life and I made some of my best friends there. Looking back on the memories, it’s crazy to think it was 10 years ago.
“So much has changed. There have been highs and lows, but a lot of highs for me and I’ve been blessed.”
There have been injuries, some inconsistencies and a season of rejuvenation in a land far away. Johnson got married and he and wife Kristina have a 3-year-old son, Breck, and 10-month-old daughter, Bridgette.
More blessings could be coming Johnson’s way. He’s a free agent and, as a versatile reliever capable of getting strikeouts in high-leverage situations, figures to be valued by many when the market opens a few days following the World Series.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m looking forward to the process,” Johnson said. “It’s a whole new process, uncharted waters for me. I’m excited to see what will come of it. I’m a little anxious.”
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During the three months Victor Scott II spent in Springfield earlier this year, the 22-year-old center fielder became a fan favorite.
Season in Japan a ‘great experience’
Johnson’s journey has been anything but predictable or easy to this point. He battled injuries and inconsistency through five seasons with the Cubs, making it to the big leagues for just one game, in 2017. Then came a season with the San Francisco Giants where he pitched in 37 games, going 3-2 in 43 ⅔ innings.
That wasn’t enough to keep his big-league job. Armed with only minor-league contract offers, he opted to pitch in Japan, for the Hanshin Tigers, in 2019. He used a stellar season as a springboard back to the big leagues, signing with the Padres before the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season.
Johnson said the season in Japan was a great experience, on and off the field. He even considered spending the rest of his career there, making good money while seeing the world and playing the sport he loved.
“I kind of hope more guys go the route I did,” Johnson said. “Now, I was in a situation without a lot of options. I’d had a little bit of big-league success, but I’d also had failure. When teams came calling, they were all minor-league options and they were fine. Don’t get me wrong.
“But when I had a chance to travel the world and get paid for it, while re-establishing myself, that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I tell guys about it all the time. It’s a very viable option.”
Johnson gambled on himself by returning to the big leagues and signing a two-year, $5 million deal. The Padres picked up his contract option for an additional $2 million prior to the 2022 season. He’s pitched in 102 games for the Padres in three seasons, striking out 125 in 93 innings.
Overcoming injury to return to the roster
While it turned out OK in the end, the injury back in the spring threatened to be the latest setback. But Johnson was able to avoid surgery and rehab his way back to good health, returning to the active roster in September in time for the Padres’ push to a National League wild card berth.
“It was frustrating,” Johnson said of the injury. “It was the highs of highs getting to finally be in the back end of the (bullpen) and earn some holds early in the year and the injury happens and you get the lowest of lows. You’re not even participating in games and don’t feel like you’re really part of the team.
“All you’re doing is trying to get back, but you don’t want to rush. It’s a tough place to be. It’s not just physically draining, it’s emotionally draining, too. It’s a battle you have to fight every day when you’re on the injured list.
“Thankfully I was able to get healthy and get back and participate before the end of the season and be involved in the playoff run.”
Never count him out
Johnson’s 2022 reflects his professional career in that whenever he’s down, never count him out. He made three scoreless postseason relief appearances, allowing two hits and striking out six in 4⅓ innings.
He said taking down the Mets and Dodgers — both winners of more than 100 regular-season games — “was so much fun.” An NLCS loss to the equally surprising Philadelphia Phillies ended the storybook run.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted it, of course,” Johnson said. “But as a team I thought we had a great year. We’ll just build off that and look forward to next.”
Ready to jump in with both feet
Wherever that is, Johnson is in a good place. He’s open to staying in San Diego if it works out, but is eager to see how others measure his value.
The best could be ahead for one of the good guys to come through Missouri State’s storied baseball program.
“Whatever is best for me and my family,” Johnson said of his next chapter. “We’ll pray about it and jump, both feet in, wherever we go.”
Keeping tabs on old MSU friends
Two of Pierce Johnson’s teammates from the 2012 Missouri State baseball team that reached the NCAA Tournament are back in Bears uniforms as coaches. Joey Hawkins is assistant to veteran head coach Keith Guttin and Nick Petree is the new pitching coach, replacing the retired Paul Evans.
While Johnson was the big pitching prospect in 2012, Petree was the Collegiate Baseball Louisville Slugger Player of the Year, with a national-best 1.01 earned run average. He had a 73-inning streak without allowing an earned run.
“I love it. He was primed for that job,” Johnson said of Petree’s role as pitching coach. “He’s so smart when it comes to pitching. His baseball aptitude is incredible. When I was in college, I was so envious of how smart he was when it came to pitching. I was more of a power pitcher who just threw hard and had a good breaking ball.
“I’m excited to see what kind of success he’s going to have. He got to learn from ‘Lump’ (Evans) and ‘Lump’ was the best. I think Petree’s going to do a phenomenal job — and Joey as well. They went to pro ball and did their thing and now they’re back. I’m excited to see where they go.”