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MLB.com Columnist

Jonathan Mayo

Johnson has the tools to make it in the bigs

Johnson has the tools to make it in the bigs

Johnson has the tools to make it in the bigs
CARY, N.C. -- It's unlikely that anyone would have faulted Brian Johnson had he decided to beg off national team duty after going all the way to the College World Series championship with the University of Florida, only to lose to the University of South Carolina.

But Johnson and Gators teammate Nolan Fontana, both USA Baseball alumni, never hesitated. After losing on Tuesday in Omaha, the pair took a short break before hustling to North Carolina to join the Collegiate National Team in time for the Prospect Classic.

Fresh off the plane on Friday, Johnson wasted no time contributing, going 2-for-2 with three RBIs as the designated hitter and throwing 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief as well.

"We were kind of scrambling to get our uniforms together and get ready to stretch," said Johnson, who on Saturday started at first base and went 0-for-2 in the Collegiate Team's 8-1 victory over the 18-and-under national trial squad. "I was just going out there relaxed, trying to put some good swings together. My arm felt good. I had some good time off. I threw at the World Series, so my arm felt fresh, and I was ready to go."

Johnson is one of the better two-way players in the Draft class of 2012, especially from the college ranks. During Florida's run, he hit .307 as a first baseman while going 8-3 with a 3.62 ERA over 79 2/3 innings as a member of the rotation. He tossed a scoreless inning of relief in that final game on Tuesday.

Johnson loves pitching and hitting, and he is looking forward to being able to do that with USA Baseball and for another season at Florida.

"My whole life, somebody told me, 'When you get to high school, you'll have to pick one,'" he said. "'Then when you get to college, you're going to have to pick one.' When I played summer ball -- 'You'll have to pick one.' Everyone keeps saying it, but I've always been allowed to do both, and I'm just thankful to have the opportunity to do both."

Johnson is a realist, however, and understands that the time will come -- most likely after he enters pro ball a year from now -- for his days as a two-way player to end. He's made his peace with it, and he will be more than willing to finally focus on one over the other.

"I'm perfectly fine with picking one," he said. "Whatever one it is, I hope to do my best at it, work as hard as I can to be the best I can at it."

The way Johnson swung the bat in the Prospect Classic -- he put on an absolute show in batting practice both days to go with his two hits on Friday -- someone who didn't know much about him would think his future was with a bat in his hands. But most scouts seem to like him more on the mound as a lefty. That fits in perfectly with Johnson's preference, if he were given the choice.

"I would say pitching; it's always come naturally to me," he said. "When I was younger, I always played first and came off of first to pitch and would just throw. Both are fun, but pitching ... I love being out there and competing."

It will undoubtedly be a little easier for Johnson to compete once he's only pursuing one vocation. Two-way players often make a nice jump in development once they enter pro ball and are able to focus on just one thing. It's not uncommon to see a pitcher gain some ticks on the radar gun with his fastball and be able to perfect secondary pitches once the stresses of hitting every game are no longer there.

"If that's true, that's awesome," Johnson said. "That means I'll be a little better at pitching, and who doesn't want to get better? In college I usually have to stay after and hit a little bit more after I do all my pitching stuff, but if you put in the hard work, it all pays off. That's all I try to do."

And it's clear that one of the things he really wanted to do was play for Team USA again. He was on the Collegiate National Team a year ago, so he was eager to wear the USA jersey for another summer, even if it came on the heels of a College World Series loss.

"It was important," he said about coming to North Carolina to join the national team. "It obviously didn't end the way I would have liked it to at the World Series. Once the game was over, it was a little emotional, leaving some of the players at UF that are leaving, some of the seniors and the guys going into the Draft.

"We put it behind us and will try to focus on next year now. Coming here, it's an honor to be able to play for your country and play in that uniform. You have to put it behind you and have to come out and play for your country."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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