COLUMBIA, S.C. — Running on pure guts and adrenaline, Tyler Johnson’s right arm felt perfectly fine as he put the finishing touches on the gem he pitched against UNC Wilmington on Sunday night.
Afterwards, well, not so much. By the time he took the stage for interviews after South Carolina’s 10-1 victory, Johnson already was starting to feel the effects of throwing 115 pitches.
What he and Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook hoped would be a three, maybe four-inning start turned into one-run complete game — not too shabby for a guy who showed up to Founders Park that morning with nine saves and only one career start on his resume.
“Tyler Johnson — that’s going to go down in Gamecock lore, as far as performances,” Holbrook said. “That kind of reminded me of 2010 when we had some reliever that hadn’t started a game named (Michael) Roth. We put him in there in Omaha, and he threw a complete game.”
Six years after Roth, Johnson pulled off the same feat, giving up one run on five hits and recording 11 strikeouts.
“It was an incredible, special performance. How much he’s improved from last year to this year is a testament to him and his hard work,” Holbrook said. “That kid has a work ethic like I’ve never seen.”
The win, Johnson’s second of the Regional, brings South Carolina back to Founders Park for one more NCAA Regional game against UNCW. Monday night’s winner punches its ticket to a Super Regional matchup against Oklahoma State.
Thanks to Johnson’s complete game, almost every pitcher on South Carolina’s staff is available to throw in what will be the Gamecocks’ fourth elimination game in three days.
“Once I got to three (innings), I was trying to get to four, then five,” Johnson said. “I was able to find a groove there and get some hitters out. I can’t say enough about our defense either. UNCW hit some balls hard, and fortunately the guys behind me made some great plays.”
Johnson, who has made 27 relief appearances this season, had to rely on more than just a heavy fastball.
“Today, he had to use everything, and he did. He threw some great changeups in there, some great breaking balls,” Holbrook said.
Along with pitching coach Jerry Meyers, Holbrook made the decision to start Johnson about an hour after South Carolina won its first game of the day over Rhode Island.
UNCW coach Mark Scalf said Johnson was the “best arm available” for the Gamecocks.
“Jerry and Chad certainly made the right choice,” Scalf said.
But it wasn’t quite so cut and dry. Over breakfast earlier morning, the South Carolina coaches decided that Johnson would start game two, if he wasn’t needed in the first one. As rain clouds surrounded the stadium later that afternoon, Holbrook began rethink the plan they put in place at 7:30 a.m.
“We didn’t want (Johnson) to get up and throw two innings (and) started out-guessing ourselves,” Holbrook said, “So I filled out the lineup and I left the pitcher’s spot open. I said, ‘Fill it out.’
“(Meyers) threw it back at me, so I made a decent pitching decision tonight, I guess.”
There was no decision to be made in the latter innings of Sunday night’s win. Johnson was in a groove. By the time the final two innings rolled around, he felt as comfortable as ever.
“I thought that the eighth and ninth inning is like my home. It has been all year,” Johnson said. “Those were just fun.”