March 27, 2010
Rome, Ga. - Patience is a trait most people must develop, but once the gift is acquired, the possibilities are limitless.
Just ask Shorter College baseball player Matt Johnson, who patiently accepted a role on the sidelines to begin his Hawks' career and patiently overcame an injury that could have hampered his development.
In its aftermath, the wait has paid healthy dividends, as Johnson has now become Shorter's hottest hitter - all through the lessons learned via the tried and true virtue of patience.
"He's a real unique baseball player in this time and age," Shorter head coach Matt Larry said of Johnson, who prepped at Temple High and, after biding his time and overcoming an injury last year, now leads the Hawks at the plate with a .420 batting average and 29 RBI.
Usually the first to arrive for practice and the last to leave, Johnson's uniqueness extends on and off the diamond as well, as the redshirt junior is also a member of Shorter's Fellowship of Christian Athletes while leading the baseball team's Bible study.
Yet it was Johnson's patience that has allowed him to emerge as a standout for the Hawks this season, patience that began when Larry and Shorter's coaching staff decided to put a hold on the player's young career.
"Looking at his body type and size we decided to redshirt him," said Larry, who added that the extra year was vital for his maturation process. "We were hoping that the extra year would help him strength-wise and age-wise and that by his sophomore year, he would become a major player for us."
That hope has paid off, though it came a year later than expected.
After seeing spot action in 2008 as a redshirt freshman, Johnson started at third base last season and appeared headed toward the kind of year the coaches expected until he developed arm trouble. Still, despite playing in less than half of the Hawks' games, he hovered around a .300 average at the plate.
This season, Johnson's persistence is paying off, as the left-handed hitter is a constant offensive threat for Shorter in the clean-up spot.
Having successfully secured hits in 14 of the last 16 games - he has played in every game so far this year - Johnson is ranked No. 10 nationally in the NAIA with 47 hits. One of his most recent outbursts came last Tuesday when he was 4-for-6 in the Hawks' non-conference doubleheader split with No. 11-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan College.
"He's gotten a lot stronger," Larry said of Johnson. "Sitting out that first year - if it's helped anyone better in the program here at Shorter College, it's been Matt.
"He's got a fundamentally sound swing and he's a well-coached hitter who makes great adjustments. He's the type of player you don't take out of the lineup."
"I'm just sticking to our approach and plan - attack the fastball," said Johnson. "That's what the coaches have been preaching to us all year. I used to be laid back when I hit, but now I want to take advantage of pitches early."
That, he points out, came as a result of sitting out that first year.
"It was tough," said Johnson about the redshirt decision. "Up to that point I was playing every game all my life. It was hard to watch, but if I had to do it again, I'd do it. It definitely helped me, physically and mentally."
It also helped make the change in positions this year much easier, as Johnson now occupies left field instead of third base.
"This year we knew we had to have his bat in the lineup so we transitioned him to being in the outfield," Larry said. "He's done a good job in the outfield. That was a huge transition for him because he's never really played out there."
"It's a tougher position than it looks," Johnson pointed out. "I just try to get a lot of (repetitions) in practice. At first, my teammates said I looked shaky out there, but I think I've gotten better."
While Johnson is aiding the Hawks defensively, one thing that Shorter has improved upon as a whole this season is a much more balanced and potent offense.
Heading into the three-game Southern States Athletic Conference showdown this weekend in Marietta against Southern Polytechnic, which remains undefeated in SSAC play, the Hawks were hitting .239 as a team and in conference games, were hitting a sizzling .371.
In game one on Friday, Shorter touched up reigning SSAC Pitcher of the Week, David Harden, for five hits and four runs in six innings. The Hawks did an excellent job of putting the ball in play, limiting Harden, one of the nation's top strikeout pitchers - he ranks 18th in the NAIA in total strikeouts - to just four K's.
"We're hitting the ball well as a team," Larry said. "To me, it's one of the best-hitting teams we've had in a long time."
Said Johnson: "As a team, we've really been doing a good job hitting the ball. We knew what we could do all along. It was just a matter of putting it all together."