ValleyCats: Johnson sees chance to launch pro career

Kentucky's Neiko Johnson, who had his senior season disrupted by an injury, clings to his last chanc

Neiko Johnson might have been down to his last opportunity. He already endured the 50-round Major League Baseball draft. His name was not among the 1,530 players chosen.

Johnson already worked out for several teams, traveling from Cincinnati, to Florida, to his University of Kentucky campus. But teams didn’t bite. The middle infielder, who missed 34 games in his senior season due to a freak injury, wasn’t getting a contract.

So his workout for the Houston Astros organization at a high school in Roswell, Ga., last Sunday, may have been his last shot. Johnson felt like he had a pretty good workout. The Astros officials told him they would make calls later that day.

“I did work out pretty well, and I was just hoping,” Johnson said. “It might have been my last team that was going to sign me. So I’m glad to be a Houston Astro.”

The call Sunday afternoon was the one Johnson hoped for, and just two days later, he was en route to Troy to begin his professional career with an Astros’ affiliate, the Tri-City ValleyCats. He’s one of 11 players on the ValleyCats’ roster beginning their pro careers in Troy this year, but he’s the only one who went undrafted.

The ValleyCats open their season — and defense of the New York-Penn League championship — tonight against the Vermont Lake Monsters at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium at 7:05. The ’Cats play 38 home games, with ticket prices ranging between $5-$11.

Coming off its first championship in team history, Tri-City hopes to recreate last season’s magic with — for the most part — a roster full of new players and coaches. Stubby Clapp replaces Jim Pankovits as manager, and all but six of the 28 current ValleyCats players are new to the team.

Clapp said continuing off of last year’s winning season is important in the development of his players.

“No. 1, you develop these guys into big-league baseball players,” said Clapp, who is entering his fifth season as a coach in the Astros organization. “And try to develop them to be winning big-league baseball players by putting them in pos­itions where they can succeed.”

All Johnson is looking to do is find himself in a position to succeed. This past college season nearly derailed his shot at pro baseball success.

Johnson began the year as Kentucky’s leadoff hitter. But in the Wildcats’ fourth game, his left pinkie got caught in a Morehead State player’s cleat as Johnson slid into second base. He left the game in pain. Johnson said he suffered a fracture of the finger.

“It was real tough,” he said. “I thought for a minute I wasn’t going to make it back from the injury because the injury was real bad.”

Johnson credited the hand ther­apist that worked with him to help get him back on the field for the last month and a half. He sat from Feb. 22 to April 23, and upon his return, the middle infielder tried to resurrect his draft stock.

Johnson hit .340 (16-for-47) over his final 14 games. He said he felt pain, but played through it. His stat line showed no ill effects.

“I didn’t want to sit out and not play baseball ever again,” he said. “So I was there every day, rehab and treatment, making sure I could get back on the field and getting my opportunity to play professional baseball.”

Clapp said he doesn’t think there is any more or less pressure on a guy who goes undrafted.

“Not everyone gets drafted. Some guys sign as free agents and still make it to the big leagues,” Clapp said. “Everyone gets an opportunity, and it’s what you make of those opportunities when they come up.”

Ryan McCurdy knows a little about the process Johnson went through to join a pro team. The ValleyCats catcher went undrafted a season ago after playing for Duke but latched on to the Houston org­anization, as well, winning a championship with the ValleyCats last year.

Unlike Johnson, though, McCurdy got the call the day after the 2010 draft from the Astros, telling him they were interested in signing him.

Still, McCurdy has the perspective of what it takes for an undrafted free agent to stick with a pro team.

“The way I’ve looked at it is you try to star in the role that you’re in,” McCurdy said. “Whether that’s going to be playing every day or not. . . . You really just try to do what­ever’s asked of you and keep a good attitude each day.”

Johnson’s attitude is sky high as he prepares for the ValleyCats’ season opener. His senior season, full of adversity, is in the past. And there’s still a window of oppor­tunity.

“I just kind of take it day by day, not really worry about the outcomes and how it came about,” Johnson said. “I just want to play, really just have fun, and go out there and win some ball games.”

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