Freshman Kel Johnson already a terror at the plate
By Jon Cooper The Good Word
"What do we do with Kel Johnson?" It's a question facing Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall from the first day 6-4, 205-pound, right-handed-hitting slugger Jeremiah "Kel" Johnson walked into Russ Chandler Stadium for the first time this fall and displayed his powerful stroke.
"That causes a lot of dilemmas, honestly," said Hall on baseball Media Day, breaking into a smile. "He, in my mind, is one of the best hitters we have. I think he's an elite hitter down the road. He's got to continue to really work hard on his defense and I think, as a coach, do you just want to stick him out there and hope that gets better? Do you play somebody that's a better defensive player than him and DH him? It's kind of a balancing act of us wanting to develop his talent, you hope that he keeps getting the defensive part of it but I think he's going to be a great player for us. As [Assistant Coach] Bryan Prince says, `Kel Johnson is in scoring position when he steps in the batter's box.'
"It's a good problem to have," he added.
Johnson didn't really clarify things when asked his preference, responding like any team-player and especially an incoming freshman would.
"I think I have come in with experience at corner outfield positions and first base. It's wherever I can play to help the team win, that's ultimately my priority," he said. "Whatever the team needs me to do. Coach can answer that question better than I could."
Over the first weekend, Hall answered the question, as he played Johnson in right field twice and DH'ed him once. Things worked out pretty well. Defensively, Johnson handled both chances he had, while offensively, the Palmetto, Ga., native was as advertised -- concluding opening weekend with a .571 batting average (8-for-14), leading the team in hits, doubles (3), homers (2), RBI (5), and total bases (17).
From here on, the question `What do we do with Kel Johnson?' -- accompanying headache and all -- is no longer Hall's problem to deal with. It now goes into the opposing dugout. Georgia Southern's dugout is next, as Georgia Tech visits the Eagles Tuesday night. (First pitch is at 6 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3).
St. John's and Fordham certainly have seen enough of Johnson.
In case they didn't know his credentials -- a dominant slugger for the last few years with the East Cobb Astros, where he won seven national championships and twice was named East Cobb Astros Offensive Player of the Year (he even set the East Cobb 16U single-season home run record with 24) and earned national renown with Team USA, helping the team to the U17 World Championships in 2013 -- they know him now.
Johnson, who capped off the fall by hitting .700 (7-for-10) in the White-Gold Series, with two homers, five RBI, four runs scored and 13 total bases (the hits, homers, RBI, and total bases led all hitters and the runs scored tied for the lead), picked up where he left off against the New York schools.
"I was biting at the bit," Johnson said recalling his first collegiate at-bat in the first inning Friday afternoon, against St. John's righty Ryan McCormick with one out and runners on first and second, with Tech down, 1-0. "I had some jitters my first at-bat but I just took some deep breaths, calmed it down and just took the approach I've had success with throughout the fall here and this spring, and was just able to rely on that and keep it consistent."
He reached on an infield hit, loading the bases and setting the stage for a six-run explosion that sent the Jackets on their way to a 17-5 win over the Red Storm, Coach Hall's 1,100th career win.
Johnson added an RBI ground-rule double in the second, a single up the middle in the fourth, and a booming two-run homer to right in the seventh in going 4-for-5, the most hits in a debut game since Derik Goffena had four versus UCLA in 1998.
Getting so many firsts out of the way in his first game was a load off his shoulders.
"It's great," he said. "After the first at-bat, getting the first knock, that's always nice. After that, you just settle in and do what you do."
That meant hitting the ball and hitting it hard. Johnson went a little more pedestrian 1-for-4 as DH in the first game on Saturday against Fordham, a 9-4 loss, then finished opening weekend going 3-for-5 in the second game of the twinbill, again going yard, with a double and two RBI in Tech's 7-5 win.
Johnson not only swung a searing bat, but put the ball in play -- striking out one time all weekend. He also was around big innings. The Jackets have six multi-run innings in the three games and Johnson was in five of them. He would have had an opportunity to be in the sixth, but he was removed in the eighth inning on Opening Day.
On the whole, it was a pretty sweet start to his college baseball career, made even sweeter by getting to do it in front of his father, Lee, and mother, Rhonda, who has been his teacher his whole life and his most important batting practice pitcher growing up.
Then again, hitting home runs has always been sweet for Johnson. Growing up, it literally was the case.
"We would go to the local ballfield and I remember my parents would bribe me into hitting home runs. They would say, `If you can hit it out then we'll go buy you an ice cream bar,'" he recalled, with a laugh. "My priority was to just hit the ball as hard as I could and I figured out a way to do it and that was how I learned to hit. I was never under strict coaching. I just hit."
He no longer hits for ice cream, but he still hits for something he loves and loves deeply, Georgia Tech.
"I've always been a Tech fan, I love the facility here, the academics," said Johnson, who is following in his mother's and older brother's footsteps by majoring in biology and following in his grandfather's footsteps by attending school at Georgia Tech. "I always tell people I think it's the best combination of high-level academics with high-level sports that you can ask for in a college. Combine that with the proximity to my house. My mom and my dad have been there for me all the way up and they deserve the opportunity to come see me play ball. I don't want to be playing 3,000 miles away.
"It goes against everything in me to help anyone else win but the Yellow Jackets because I've always been a Yellow Jackets fan," he added. "I want to see them win. I want to help them win and I want to do everything I can to make that happen."
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