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Happy Homecoming: Johnson thriving with Rogues

Every collegiate baseball player has a choice to make when it comes to summer plans, each with designs on putting in the extra work during the offseason in order to return as a more polished prospect moving forward for their respective school programs.

Medford’s Joe Johnson spent some time weighing his options as he prepared to go into this past season as a sophomore at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California.

At the end of the day, his baseball pursuits brought him back home with the Medford Rogues, and that decision only seems to get rewarded with each passing day.

“I always thought it would be cool and it would be fun,” Johnson said of playing for the Rogues. “Being down at school in Southern California, there’s a lot of options there and I had the opportunity to play in San Diego, Anaheim, Huntington Beach and all those places, but I definitely made the right decision coming home.”

That feeling also goes for the Rogues, who have thrived with Johnson in the lineup and took a 17-3 record in the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League into Saturday night’s matchup with the Sacramento Heat.

Johnson, a 2017 St. Mary’s High graduate, ranks second on the Rogues in runs (20), RBIs (18) and doubles (6) and leads the squad with three home runs to go with a .357 batting average this summer for his former high school coach, Sean Gallagher.

Johnson played a pivotal role in St. Mary’s winning the Class 3A state championship in 2017, earning quarterfinal and semifinal wins on the mound before pitching a perfect seventh inning to nail down a 5-3 win over Glide in the state final. His three-run home run in the fifth inning of the semifinals allowed St. Mary’s to slip by defending state champion Stanfield, 3-2.

Johnson also has been a key contributor during the Medford Mustangs’ streak of American Legion AAA state championships the past few years, so it’s not like he’s a stranger to playing high stakes baseball at Harry & David Field during the summer months.

Still, there can be pluses and minuses when it comes to being a hometown boy on the highest level of baseball being played in the Rogue Valley.

“There’s still nerves coming back, you always want to do well in front of hometown people that know you,” said the 19-year-old first baseman. “It definitely helped having Sean here just because I know I’m going to get my opportunity, I’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunity. I knew I wasn’t going to come in and sit the bench all the time, all I had to do was play well and I’ve been able to do that so far.”

Johnson’s success thus far has come as no surprise to Gallagher, who has worked with the talented 5-foot-11, 195-pound prospect since his days in elementary school.

“He eats and breathes baseball,” said Gallagher. “That’s all he does is baseball, and he loves it. There’s no other place he’d rather be than on the field, and that’s most of these guys out here. I’m grateful to have such a solid team of gashousers, guys that want to go out and play hard every night.”

As a sophomore at Vanguard University this past season, Johnson started in all but two of the 50 games he played in, batting .279 with 33 runs and 34 RBIs to rank among the team leaders. He finished with nine home runs, 13 doubles and one triple for the Lions (31-20).

“I felt pretty good about the season,” said Johnson. “Usually you go through hot stretches and cold stretches and I started off super hot. I went through a little cold stretch in the middle but then picked it up again at the end so I was happy with that.”

A couple of his Vanguard teammates have joined Johnson in Medford in Omar Ortiz (.310, 22 RBIs) and Maxx Mahon (.283, 16 RBIs), along with a future teammate in Aki Buckson (.462, 22 runs, 13 RBIs).

For Johnson, the goal for this summer was pretty simple, which is why he feels he’s in the best situation he could find himself in.

“I’m just trying to get better every day and get ready to go back into next season a better player,” said Johnson. “Sean is big on player development so he’s helping out all the guys a lot.”

Much of that has to do with get repetitions at the plate as well as at first base and in the outfield. Johnson said he’s particularly focused on becoming a more consistent hitter. Even though he’s had past success as a left-handed pitcher and recently took the mound for the Rogues, that’s no longer a concern.

“I think I’m pretty much done with pitching,” said Johnson. “It’s hard because my arm always hurts, and I just want to stick with hitting. It’s hard doing it two ways (as a pitcher and positional player), I just want to focus more on hitting.”

Part of his own inability is what makes him marvel even more at Rogues teammate Brice Foster, who boasts a 4-0 record and 2.79 ERA with one save and is also batting .441 when playing shortstop this summer.

“Brice is doing both and he’s doing really well at both,” said Johnson, “but he’s got an arm that he can just throw every single day. He can just do it all the time, I can’t do that.”

What he can do, however, is play baseball. That much has been undeniable in Johnson’s case for quite some time, and his growth in stature as a confident player is what has been most notable for Gallagher in the gap between his time served as Johnson’s coach.

“He just absolutely believes in himself so there’s no question in his ability in his mind,” said Gallagher. “Even though he’s 5-10, 180 pounds, he believes he’s 6-4, 240 pounds and there’s no fear in his game. He’s aggressive and really the belief in himself is the big change I’ve seen. He knows he belongs where he is.”

“He just needs to take three swings always,” said the manager of Johnson’s continued development. “He needs to not protect and not think about results, he needs to just focus on taking three great swings. If he does that, he’ll have a shot.”

That mentality to go for it is essentially what Gallagher and company have been trying to preach throughout the Rogues program this summer.

“The big push, for all the guys, is I am giving them the absolute freedom to take their biggest swings, to fail on the field and push the envelope in the game,” he said. “We steal bags when they’re not allowed to steal where they’re at (in college), and we swing big with two strikes when they’re not allowed. That’s the key and that’s why we give so many teams problems because I’m unleashing the game.”

Whatever the mindset, Johnson seems to have definitely found success thus far.

“I’m just trusting myself,” he said of early results. “This year I’ve felt really good as a two-strike hitter, I’ve gotten a lot of two strikes hits. I was down 0-2 (Thursday night) and fought off a couple foul balls before getting a two-run single. It’s things like that that are good for me. I’m just trusting myself to see the location and then just go to it.”

And when the daily grind can sometimes be too much, with the Rogues having only their third day off this summer on Monday before starting a seven-day road trip, being a hometown favorite does have its benefits.

“It’s a lot of fun and it helps on those days you feel tired,” Johnson said of the local support. “The fans definitely help a lot. These are the largest crowds I’ve ever played in front of. I’ll never forget the first time I ran out there when my name was announced, it was electric, it was crazy. I got goosebumps and it was like I was playing for the first time again.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail tribuneRogues Joe Johnson reacts to a defensive play made by teammates from the dugout during Friday night's game against Sacramento Heat.