The left-hander expected to pitch exclusively out of the bullpen this season. In fact, it was not until April 11 against UNC-Asheville that Johnson started the first game of his career.
Less than a month later, Johnson is the Sunday starter for a Tar Heel pitching staff that held a 2.69 ERA coming into Wednesday night’s game against the Winthrop Eagles.
“Hobbs has really been throwing well,” head coach Mike Fox said. “He’s got good stuff and if there’s a story on our team this year, besides Colin [Moran] breaking his hand, it’s Hobbs Johnson.”
Johnson has seemingly come out of nowhere. The Rocky Mount (N.C.) High School product appeared in only six games his freshman year and pitched a mere 3.2 innings. With much of the Carolina pitching staff returning, expectations for Johnson were not much higher this season. He was expected to be an emergency long-inning option out of the bullpen.
“You don’t expect it,” Fox said. “You watch him and you’re like, ‘Man this kid’s not going to make it, he’s just not going to make it’ and then all of a sudden he’s out there throwing for you on the weekend.”
Johnson continued his stellar pitching on Wednesday, earning the win over Winthrop despite pitching just four innings in anticipation for his start against Boston College on Sunday. The sophomore, who is 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA on the season, struck out six Eagles and gave up no runs on two hits. In addition to Johnson, five other Carolina pitchers combined to shut out Winthrop, 2-0.
“The coaches push us to never get too high and never get too low,” Johnson said. “I pretty much just try to stay on the same track and keep working hard no matter if I pitch well or I pitch badly.”
Keeping an even keel attitude has served Johnson well so far. Despite not having many opportunities last season, he never got too down on himself. At the same time, he understands his recent success is not enough to be satisfied with.
His emergence could not come at a better time for the Tar Heels. Carolina has just three ACC series remaining as the team fights for a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host a Super Regional come June.
As it stands, Johnson would be the man to start the third game of a series in the NCAA Tournament. Being a third game starter brings tremendous pressure, especially when the entire season is on the line. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared unlikely Johnson would have the opportunity to take the mound in such a pressure packed situation.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Johnson said. “It’s not really seen as pressure for me. It’s almost like another challenge.”