CLEVELAND – Wes Johnson knows the timing isn’t ideal for the Minnesota Twins. It’s not easy for him either, or without personal pain.
Johnson left the Twins to return to his college coaching roots, taking over as LSU’s pitching coach. He said the decision had an emotional impact on him.
“Very tough,” Johnson said Monday at Progressive Field ahead of the Twins’ game against the Guardians. “I don’t know if I slept much last week. Very, very, very hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Johnson’s decision comes as the American League-leading Twins opened a five-game series against the second-placed Cleveland Guardians. Johnson will serve as Minnesota’s pitching coach throughout this series, which ends Thursday.
Sonny Gray pitched seven great innings in Monday’s opener, an 11-1 win for the Twins, then got emotional after the game when talking about Johnson leaving.
“It’s tough,” said the right-hander, who allowed just three singles. “He’s someone I’ve become very close to and I think if you know me a little bit, letting people in and building relationships in that regard, I’ve been on guard a lot.
“I was very angry with him today. I was very happy for him today. I used all the emotions and everything that was going on, I kind of used them to pour myself into the match.”
Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said the team has ongoing discussions about how to replace Johnson for the remainder of this season and beyond. Johnson joined the Twins in 2019 after coaching at Arkansas. In the short term, reliever coach Pete Maki and assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez should play major roles.
“It creates a bit of juggling,” Falvey said. “Our plan here is to work with the in-group that we have to play as Wes.”
Falvey called Johnson’s mid-season departure “unique”, but said he was confident the Twins were equipped to handle it. The same goes for manager Rocco Baldelli, who called a team meeting Sunday night upon arriving in Cleveland to brief his players on Johnson’s decision.
“We’re not going to ask anyone to be Wes,” he said. “That’s not how life works and that’s not how baseball works. We’re going to make sure we give our pitchers everything they need. We’re about as prepared as we can get. for something like that.
Johnson’s exit was as surprising as his arrival. He was widely believed to be the first college pitching coach to go straight to the major leagues when the Twins hired him from Arkansas, which was the 2018 College World Series national runner-up. Johnson spent nine seasons as a college pitching coach before the Twins drafted him, eyeing his background in biomechanics. He holds a master’s degree in kinesiology.
“Knowing Wes and having been blessed to appreciate and see him all these years, it’s not incredibly surprising to see him return to college play,” Baldelli said. “Am I incredibly happy to see this happening in the middle of the season? Of course not. No one is. There’s no getting around this discussion, but I’m not surprised to see him back. to something that he has a passion for and he loves and he’s really good at.”
Johnson was born in Atlanta and raised in Arkansas, where he kept a house during the offseason. It also made stops in Mississippi State, Dallas Baptist and Central Arkansas. He was a high school coach before entering the college ranks.
Johnson chaired the pitching staff of division champion teams in his first two years. The Twins returned to the top of the AL Central this season with a 3.78 ERA per team that ranks 11th in the majors. The Twins ranked 26th in the ERA last year, fourth in 2020 and ninth in 2019 while Johnson was in charge of personnel.
The Twins set a single-season club record with 1,463 strikeouts in 2019. Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi were All-Star selections in 2019, and Taylor Rogers made the team in 2021. Twins pitchers have regularly praised Johnson’s energy, positivity and wisdom as recently as Saturday night, when Chris Archer pitched five shutout innings with one hit allowed at Colorado.
“Wes is one of my biggest defenders,” Archer said after the 6-0 win at Target Field. “We do a lot of work, mental and physical, between starts.”
Johnson said he’s proud of the impact he’s had on young Minnesota pitchers.
“I think I brought energy every day,” he said. “I think every day I set myself up to win, like I do right now and like I will until the end of this road trip. No one is going to look at me and say it didn’t happen. not presented to work.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.