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Change-Up: Matt Johnson goes from hard-hitting shortstop to pitcher overnight06/30/2012 10:43 PM ET
By Rob Fai / Vancouver Canadians
(Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium - Vancouver, BC) - It may go down as one of those moments in time where you remember 'when' you saw something special.
With the Vancouver Canadians trailing Everett 13-2 back on June 25th, manager Clayton McCullough wanted to simply stop burning through his pitching staff. It was evident that shortly after Alfredo Moralez crossed home plate in the bottom of the 7th inning to make it 13-0 Aquasox, that a Canadians tally in the win column was likely not in the cards.
But, it's amazing what you can find in the cards when you least expect it.
McCullough decided to keep his remaining pitchers available for another night and called upon SS Matt Johnson to come in, hopefully throw a few over the plate and perhaps catch a few Everett sluggers napping or off-balance.
What happened in the moments after Johnson's announcement over the PA system out at Memorial Stadium can only be described as 'the silver lining on an otherwise forgettable night' for the Canadians.
Johnson offered up his first pitch to Everett 1B Taylor Ard who already had a home run and a grand slam in the game - and watched it get fouled off.
The first thing that many of us did in the stadium was look to the radar gun to see just how silly the velocity was on Johnson's offering to the plate.
The only problem?
There was nothing silly about his 88mph fastball. The next pitch missed as did the 1-1 offering, but in the fourth pitch of his effort against the Aquasox bopper, Johnson got the powerful Ard to pop out gently to Canadians 1B Jordan Leyland.
A handful of C's players at the top step of the dugout smirked realizing that Johnson had just done something that few in the game had been able to do prior to the 8th inning and that was get Ard out without getting punished.
Johnson then took a deep breath and working from the stretch went right after Janelfry Zorrilla.
A 92mph fastball caught Zorrilla by surprise. It was followed by a 94mph fastball and a third one at 95mph.
Zorrilla swung at all three pitches and was late on every single one of them.
David Villasuso dug his cleat into the batter's box moments later and he too was a strikeout victim as Johnson's fastball remained electric.
The native of Orrville, Ohio, a town of about 8,500 locals, walked toward the Canadians dugout where he was met by a group of his teammates who simply high-fived and laughed at how Johnson had just walked through the 3-4-5 of the Aquasox order with ease.
Remember, it was 13-0 Everett so the offense was feeling pretty good about themselves prior to their dealings with Johnson in the 8th inning.
His efforts went down in the box score as simply an inning in the books with two strikeouts, but where it might have counted the most was in the fact that Johnson, 24, might have just bought himself a few more years of professional baseball because of his scoreless frame.
Flash forward to the final day of June, some six days after Johnson dazzled in Everett.
There in the Canadians bullpen about three hours before a scheduled game that never got played (rain), stood Matt Johnson on a bullpen mound with Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski and a few of the Toronto Blue Jays brass all taking in Johnson's mechanics on the mound.
"One of the good things about him is that he doesn't have bad habits," stated Jim Czajkowski minutes after he found his way back into the Manager's office to collect his thoughts.
"He picked up on everything we were teaching him out there really quickly".
Entering his third season within the Blue Jays organization, Johnson has never advanced past Vancouver of the Northwest League and although this summer, he was hitting .313 (5-for-16) it might have not been enough to keep him within the organization beyond this summer as the 24-year old was simply getting lost in the lower levels of the system.
But now, Johnson suddenly emerges as the hardest throwing arm out of the bullpen along with Canadian-born RHP Nick Purdy and the possibilities are endless.
"We are looking at what can help Matt reach the Major Leagues and right now this (moving him into the bullpen as a pitcher) is what we think can help him do that," says Clayton McCullough who played several years in the Blue Jays Minor League system catching many of the arms that are currently playing in Toronto.
"He's got a smooth delivery that looks effortless and he's got the velocity to maybe make a few things happen".
Johnson almost blushes at the attention the move is getting as he knows there is still a lot of work to be done before he can call himself a true 'pitcher'.
His transition into the bullpen might not usually be an easy one with a number of pitchers suddenly having to shift down the bench to make room for another arm - but Johnson's outgoing and compassionate personality should make for an easy fit in the quirky yet efficient bullpen of the Canadians.
"Hey, a lot of those pitchers could learn something from Matt as well," states Jim Czajkowski.
"Now he can tell those pitchers what a hitter might be thinking in a certain situation and how a change-up can truly be an 'out' pitch".
Time will tell of Johnson can remain as effective as he was on that chilly night in Everett, WA., but when you find a young man who can throw hard, for strikes and cares about the game - it's definitely worth the risk associated with a move like this.
Win or lose, the move may have just bought Johnson a few more summers in the sun, a few more bus rides with friends and a few more moments in time where you remember 'when' you saw something special.