CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A long five-and-a-half weeks finally came to an end for Tyler Johnson and South Carolina baseball on Tuesday night.
The Gamecocks hard-throwing closer got back on the mound for the first time since March 4, returning after time off due to arm soreness. The junior threw a scoreless eighth inning in South Carolina’s 20-5 loss to North Carolina at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, N.C.
“It was a big, personal mountain to climb,” Johnson said. “I went out there and had every intention of feeling good. I did. I can’t wait to build upon this outing and get back out there.”
Johnson started out the season clicking, converting four saves early on for the Gamecocks at the back of the bullpen. But on March 4, Johnson struggled a bit against Clemson and his velocity tailed off during the outing. He was pulled and has not pitched since, dealing with a sore arm but no structural issues.
Johnson said two weeks ago he “started seeing the end of the hill.”
“From there it was smooth sailing,” he said. “It has been a long road.”
It has been a long stretch for Johnson and the Gamecocks, as some bullpen woes have led to close losses. USC gave up late leads against Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt, with a three-run walk-off homer in the ninth inning at Auburn being the worst of them all.
“Quite honestly, they have been pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Sitting there watching us play and seeing our guys go out there. We go to Auburn and outplay them for so many innings. But we are back now.”
Johnson threw 11 pitches Tuesday, eight of them for strikes. He got a groundout, flyout and a strikeout in the 1-2-3 inning, the brightest spot in an otherwise disastrous night for the Gamecocks.
Johnson said he didn’t fully let loose in his first live game action, instead focusing on throwing strikes and working in some offspeed pitches. But what he showed was encouraging to South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook, who said barring any arm soreness in the coming days that Johnson will step back into the closer’s role this weekend against Mississippi State.
“It was impressive to me,” Holbrook said. “He was throwing in the mid-90s and upper-90s again. That was the thing that was good coming out of the game today is the way he threw. Obviously, that bodes well for us in some late-game situations going forward.”