CHATHAM — It’s a few minutes past five o’clock on this sun-splashed Friday afternoon at Red Wilson Field when the public address announcer switches off the pre-game music, clears his throat and introduces Addison Johnson to the plate.
Chatham's Addison Johnson. ERIC ADLER PHOTO
Like a chain reaction, the calling of Johnson’s name sets off a collective chant from the players in the Chatham A’s dugout, who have their own way of introducing their leadoff hitter, as he makes his way from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box.
“You go, we go,” the voices call out. “You go, we go, kid.”
It’s a common baseball saying, one that’s used for many players at the little league and major league levels alike, but among the A’s, it’s almost exclusively reserved for Johnson, who’s distinguished himself as the catalyst of Chatham’s super-charged offense. He is, in other words, the guy the A’s need to get things going.
After surveying a few pitches, Johnson leans in and drives a sharp single that caroms off second baseman Grant Green to begin the game between the A’s and Red Sox, who are duking it out for supremacy in the East Division.
It’s not a hit that wows the crowd in the same vein as Jermaine Curtis’ bottle-rocket home run that scores Johnson and Scott Lyons later in the inning. But it does draw applause from the A’s players, their coaches and baseball-savvy fans, who know that there are no style points for getting on base.
Johnson’s hit and run scored, which he duplicates in the ninth inning in Chatham’s 11-5 smack down of Y-D, are just a couple of examples of how, when he’s called upon to bat, he comes through for the A’s.
It’s after his second hit when Johnson, who bears a look of deep concentration the entire game, finally cracks a small smile, which is one part happiness, the other part relief.
That’s because reaching base in the CCBL, a stepping stone league that features the future Barry Zito’s of the world, is indeed a tall task. For Johnson, it’s also a reminder that he has capability to be a leading man, which couldn’t be said about the 19-year old right fielder after he experienced a shaky college season at Clemson this spring.
Johnson came to the South Carolina-based school as a highly-touted table setter, and although he hit a respectable .286 for the Tigers, he lost his spot as the leadoff after “not getting it done.”
The Cape League, which has a way of spoon-feeding position players their first taste of failure, seemed like the last place Johnson should go to restore his confidence.
But something unexpected happened the first night he put on an A’s uniform: he singled in his first-ever Cape League at-bat, hitting a soft shot to shallow centerfield off Clayton Shunick, a Cape League veteran who logged a 2.21 ERA in 57 innings for the Orleans Cardinals last summer.
“It wasn’t a hard hit, but it worked,” said Johnson, who’s come to realize that hitting first in the lineup “is not so much about getting a hit every time, but drawing walks, causing havoc and putting pressure on the defense.”
Based on that criteria, Johnson has been a boon for the A’s and a terror for opposing teams. At the start of this week, he’s hitting .301, with a .354 on-base percentage. He also leads the A’s with 31 hits and the league with 21 runs scored.
Added to that, the fleet-footed five-foot-seven freshman has stolen a team-best seven bases and put together a nine-game hitting streak between June 25 and July 5.
“Confidence had a lot to do with it,” said Johnson, who speaks in a gentlemanly southern drawl, the way you imagine someone from Pfafftown, N.C. would. “The biggest thing for me has been waiting for my pitch to hit, going deep into the count, and being selective.”
All three of those steps are necessary when hitting with wood bats, but especially for Johnson, a novice with anything other than aluminum.
“Sometimes with metal bats you can try to get big and muscle it out of the park but you can’t get away with that hitting with wood,” said Johnson. “You have to shorten up your swing.” Equally important, “is seeing a lot of pitchers, because it helps the guys hitting behind me. It’s important to make that first at-bat a battle.”
Johnson battled, and then some, Thursday night when he singled in the tying run and scored the game-winner in a wild 12-11 win over Y-D that capped an improbable come back, in which the A’s trailed 11-1 heading into the sixth inning.
“I didn’t actually see the ball hit off the bat,” said Johnson, who came home from first on Curtis’ walk-off single. “I saw the outfielders run to the gap, one of them dove, and after that I just made sure to touch every base. Winning a game like that shows us we can come back against anybody.”
Johnson’s prowess at the plate paid off in a big way again on Sunday when he singled to leadoff the game and scored what proved to be a critical run in Chatham’s narrow 5-4 victory over Orleans.
“Addison is eclectic when he gets going because he can do so many things,” Chatham Field Manager John Schiffner said. “He runs well, he puts the ball in play, he can bunt for base hits, and [as he did in the 12-11 comeback win over Y-D] he can knock one out at any time. He’s really set the tone for us this season.”
Johnson’s variegated talent has Chatham (14-12-2) in sole possession of second place in the East Division. Who would’ve thought a freshman would be leading the way for the A’s? Certainly not Schiffner.
“Because of their lack of experience and lack of exposure to the level of competition, many freshmen fail in this league and suffer more than sophomores,” the 15-year Chatham skipper said. “But Addison is breaking that myth. He just keeps getting better and better, and even if he has a drop off from here on out, I think it’s been a successful summer for him.”
Johnson isn’t willing to make the same claim just yet. It’s much too early and there’s much more baseball to play.
“My goal this summer was to get some games under my belt against solid competition and leave here with a better idea of how to be a leadoff hitter.”
He’s well on his way.
by Eric Adler