Poise, Talent Make Chase Johnson Key Piece to Wingnuts Title Aspirations
As the Wichita Wingnuts head to Game 5 of the American Association Championship series, it is clear that every pitch is going to be magnified. Every ground ball, every hit, every error, every single moment and decision in the contest with the Winnipeg Goldeyes will be scrutinized for years to come. For the team that wins, the decisions and plays that will be made will be talked about and celebrated for decades. For the team that loses, they will be second-guessing every choice and action they made to see if they should have done something a little differently.
It is that kind of high tension and drama with any championship series, especially when it becomes a winner-take-all game. It is the kind of contest where those who are nervous and unsure of themselves are apt to make mistakes and where those who handle pressure like it is any other game will become stars. It is the kind of game that was made for Wichita Wingnuts reliever Chase Johnson.
An Early Success Leading to a Love of the Game
When a manager turns to a reliever in a critical moment of a contest like this, there are three things that he wants above all else: proven success, experience in these kinds of situations, and an unflappability that is never shaken. The stadium could be on fire during a massive tornado and the pitcher would be so focused that all he noticed was that the stadium suddenly got a little brighter and he was having a little more challenge keeping his hat on. That is the character of Chase Johnson.
The right-hander has loved the game of baseball for as long as he can remember. Growing up in the Glendale, Arizona area, he had important influences that led him to want to play the sport above all others. The setting and those who encouraged him to play made it an ideal sport to be a part of.
“I started at a very young age. I’m from Arizona and my dad played, so it was just kind of in the blood. My brothers played when I just grew up, I just loved baseball because I could do it year-round out there.”
Growing up, Chase knew that he had a good arm, but a decision by his dad seemed to be holding him back at the time. Wanting to protect his son’s future, his dad refused to allow his son to throw breaking balls when he was younger. This may have seemed like a preventative move, but it was actually having a negative impact early on.
“My dad never let me throw an off-speed pitch so I got cut from a few teams because of that. They would want a pitcher who could throw off-speed pitches, and I didn’t do that. It limited my chances at that time.”
The coaches and managers may have been ignoring him when he was younger, but when he got to high school his prospects changed greatly. Chase found scouts giving him a closer look, and he began to realize that his prospects for a career in the sport were looking a whole lot rosier. He was physically getting stronger and smarter.
“I stuck with it in high school and really started throwing a lot harder. I thought I had a legitimate shot, especially after scouts started coming out from colleges.”
After graduating, Chase spent three-years in junior college at South Mountain Community College where he built up quite a reputation for himself. Not only was his fastball lively, but the decision by his father to protect his arm was really paying off. He was throwing the off-speed pitches now, but they did not come with the wear and tear that many of his teammates and opponents had endured.
“My dad was trying to save my arm, which was good because it really saved me so that I have a lot more bullets for now, for the last eight years. The way he protected my arm really helped me in the long run.”
The Early Phoundations of His Professional Career
Following his junior season, Chase was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 21st round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft. Johnson always thought he had the right stuff to be a professional pitcher one day, but now he was about to see that vision become reality.
In 2009, he was sent to the Phillies rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League where he made 15-appearances. In 29.2-innings pitched he looked sharp, allowing 28-hits and 12-walks while striking out 35. He posted a 3.94 ERA and had one save, and the Philadelphia organization had seen enough to promote him the next season.
In 2010 he would spend the year at Short-Season Williamsport where he pitched quite well. In 26-appearances he saved 15-games and had an impressive 2.79 ERA.
In 2011, he was promoted once again, this time to Mid-A Lakewood where the results were mixed. Chase’s ERA rose to 4.31 and he was not given the opportunity to close out games. Working primarily in middle relief, the right-hander pitched 71-innings, going 4-6. He still showed he had the heat, striking out 64, and had shown enough to deserve another season in the organization.
However, the Phillies decided to move in another direction. At the end of the season he was granted his unconditional release. He was on the market for the first time in his career.
Looking for a place to stay in the game, Chase signed with Amarillo in the American Association. He pitched well there, going 5-5 with 11-saved in 44-appearances. His fastball had as much heat as a hot Texas sun as he struck out 46 in 46.2-innings. The performance caught the attention of the Baltimore Orioles, who purchased his contract, but he would be released before the next season would begin.
In 2013, he split time between Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Prairie. In 34 total appearances he saved 13 games and posted a 1-1 record.
Demonstrating Proven Success
The following season would be a big moment for Chase Johnson. He started out in Winnipeg before joining Fort Worth in the United Baseball League. In Fort Worth, the right-hander was absolutely brilliant. He would make 26-appearances, posting a 3-3 record with 9-saves. Most impressive of all was that in 30.1-innings pitched he had a miniscule 0.59 ERA. That included just 20-hits allowed and 38-strikeouts. Chase was the closer of that team as he helped Fort Worth to reach the league’s championship series.
The American Association was heading toward their own playoffs just as the United League season ended. The Wichita Wingnuts were in need of bullpen help and former Manager Kevin Hooper signed Johnson to finish out the season. The Wingnuts were the league’s best team, but had fallen short in the finals the two previous seasons. Hooper was not going to let that happen again.
Chase appeared in 8-games, going 1-0 with a save. He also had an impressive 1.12 ERA. The right-hander was brilliant, but proved to be even more so in the playoffs. The Wingnuts reliever made five total appearances, going scoreless in his 5-innings of work. That helped Wichita to win their first ever American Association title and was a huge moment for Chase.
“This is a world-class place to play independent ball. You get treated really well; they have great management, great coaching, great teammates. The players are all great guys, and it was just a great experience to join them and win the championship that year.”
Experience in Pressure Situations
In 2015, Chase Johnson moved onto the Sioux Falls Canaries where he saved 15-games and posted a 5-2 record and a 2.55 ERA in 40-appearances. The right-hander was incredible for the Canaries, and returned to the team in 2016. He would not stay there long.
Three weeks into the 2016 American Association season the Wichita Wingnuts were in disarray, primarily because of their pitching staff. Several of their starters were struggling, prompting the move to put rookie Alex Boshers into the rotation. Daniel Bennett, who had been the guy that could be used in any situation, retired at the end of the 2015 season. The staff was in a funk, and needed a change. Chase became a key addition.
General Manager Josh Robertson reacquired Chase on June 3. The results were astounding. The right-hander was called upon to fill the role that Bennett had filled for the Wingnuts in the two previous seasons, and he excelled. It did not matter if it was the fifth inning or the ninth; if the team was in need of a big out, Chase Johnson’s name was going to be called. He was loving the role.
“Early on they called me into a lot of games where I came in with the bases loaded. It became something that I really enjoyed. You want to get out of that inning. You want the guy who had the bases loaded that you came in for to get out of it. You want to pick that guy up. That’s how you get a lot of respect out of your teammates.”
Respect is exactly what he earned, not only from his teammates but from the coaching staff as well. Even Robertson acknowledged that the addition of the right-hander was a huge part in the team’s turnaround. “He really helped to solidify this bullpen. You need a guy you can count on like that and he became that guy.”
Since returning to Wichita the numbers speak for themselves. Chase made 34-appearances for the Wingnuts this season, posting a 4-2 record, a save, and a 3.23 ERA. He kept a lot of frames from becoming big innings and ensured that games got to closer Frankie Reed with the lead intact.
This has continued into the playoffs as well. In his three outings, Chase has not been scored upon in 2.2-innings and has struck out 4.
His biggest outing came in Game 3 of the Championship series, when the Wingnuts had scored two-runs in the bottom of the fifth to take a 7-4 lead. In the top of the sixth, the Winnipeg Goldeyes looked like they would get those runs right back when they got two on with one out. However, Manager Pete Rose, Jr. called upon Chase to bail the team out, and that is exactly what he did, striking out Reggie Abercrombie and Josh Romanski, the Goldeyes’ No. 4 and No. 5 hitters, to get out of the inning.
An Unflappability Like Few Others
The way that Chase Johnson has performed this season speaks for itself. When the team needs big outs they turn to their right-hander knowing he can make the pitches to get out of jams.
What makes him so good at his job is not his stuff, however. There are many pitchers that have the same kind of stuff that Chase does, however, few are as cool on the mound as the right-hander. In fact, his poise is not even a product of game situations. The right-hander seems like the kind of young man that is as cool on the mound as he would be reading the newspaper, getting audited by the IRS (we pray that will not happen), or when trying to navigate Kellogg Avenue during rush hour traffic. He simply doesn’t let the pressure of any situation affect him, remaining as balanced as one could ask out of a reliever.
Chase recognizes that this is one of the keys to being a success in the game, because the game can turn against you in the blink of an eye.
“You gotta stay even keel when it’s up and down, because you can have those great outings where you are going 10 or 12 inning scoreless and, the next thing you know, you just blow up. It’s part of the game. You can’t focus on what has happened before. You just have to trust that you have had success and know that you can do it again.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Wingnuts reliever is that he doesn’t want to simply make pitches to keep his team on top. He wants to face the best. When he enters the game he is embracing the situations the team has placed him into this season. To be the best he wants to face the best, and has no fear about who his competition is.
“You want to face the best. You want to get out the best. Every guy that is up there is the same in my book, because anyone could beat you at any time. You just need to get ahead and do what has made you a success to this point. When you can do that against the other team’s best guys then that is what you dream about.”
Unless Alex Boshers is tossing a no-hitter tonight, it is likely that Rose will be turning to his right-handed reliever, calling upon Chase Johnson to get his team out of a jam. It could even be in a situation where the bases are loaded with one out, and Wichita clinging to a one-run lead. It will likely be in the most pressure packed situation of all.
Of course, by the look on Chase Johnson’s face you would have no idea of how much pressure he was in. He will coolly and without emotion get the outs his team needs on their way to their second American Association title in three seasons. It will be a moment that people will talk about around Wichita for years to come.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA