'Hojo' settles in to DH spot for Tigers
By CONOR NICHOLL
Horace Johnson goes by multiple names. His full name is Horace Ryan Johnson and went by Ryan until his senior year of high school in Raymore, Mo. Then, his teammates found out his actual name was Horace, a family name.
Johnson first attended Seminole State (Okla.) College before he came to Fort Hays State University last season. At FHSU, coach Steve Johnson calls Johnson "Hojo." Johnson also wears a necklace that his mom gave him. It's a paseo that says "Hojo."
"They started calling me Horace, so I wasn't going to fight it," he said. "I was just like, 'OK, you can call me that.' Then, it just kind of stuck and then Hojo came along."
Johnson doesn't mind any of the names.
"I could go up to the same person and introduce myself twice and the first time be Horace and the second time be Ryan."
"Whoever is playing better," he added with a smile. "If Horace is playing better, that's who I am. If it's Ryan, that's who I am."
Regardless of his name, Johnson is one of NCAA Division II's top designated hitters and a rarity in recent Fort Hays history.
Last spring, Johnson started 30 of the Tigers' 45 games at DH and delivered a .336 average with nine homers and 34 RBIs.
Since 1997, Johnson had the most starts at DH by a Tiger since Josh Gilstrap had 55 in 2002 and 32 in 2001, according to FHSU sports information research.
Johnson did strike out a team-high 38 times, but also carried a .395 on-base percentage and .587 slugging percentage.
He collected first team all-MIAA at DH and was first and second team all-Region by two different services. Johnson earned second team preseason All-American DH honors this spring.
"He did a great job at DH," coach Johnson said. "I am hoping this year we see what we have been seeing in practice that he has really matured as a hitter. When he was good last year, he was as good as anybody."
Johnson and junior Cooper Langley were expected to split time at first base and designated hitter this spring. Last weekend, Johnson started two games at DH and one at first as FHSU went 1-2 in a season-opening road series at Texas A&M-International. Johnson leads the team with a .545 average (6 of 11) with two doubles.
On Friday, FHSU opens a three-game home series against Pittsburg State University (1-2).
The home opener is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Larks Park.
"Last year was a lot of fun," Johnson said. "Even as a DH, which is kind of a different part of baseball, because you are not in the game. You sit on the bench more than you play, but it's hitting. Hitting is fun. It's the best part of baseball, in my opinion."
2013 marked the first year Johnson had been a full-time DH at any level. In the last several seasons, FHSU has used the DH in different ways. In 2010, catchers Sloan Soulia and Ryan Majercik split time behind the plate and at DH.
In 2011, Johnson's first year as coach, J.C. Ochoa, also a first baseman, started 26 of 51 games at DH. In 2012, Mace Krol, also a first baseman, was DH in 25 of 53 contests.
Gilstrap, Jeff Frase (37 starts in 1998), Ian Van Kooten (30 starts in 2000) and Johnson are the lone Tigers to start more than 29 games at DH in the last 16 years.
Southwest Minnesota State University's Steven Kremer, who finished second to Johnson on one all-region team last spring, had just 27 starts at DH.
"Every team dictates what you do," coach Johnson said. "Sometimes, you don't have the option to have a pure DH. It's where you put an extra bat, and it kind of depends on the day. Sometimes you are blessed to have enough big bats at certain positions that somebody has to become a full-time DH.
During downtime, Johnson cheered on teammates, ate sunflower seeds, watched the game and thought about at-bats. Following the World Series last fall showed Johnson the importance of a DH.
"David Ortiz, it's exciting to watch him this year in the World Series," Johnson said. "He carried his team, so even though you are not on the field, you are still helping your team. It's definitely changed the way I look at baseball. But it's difficult."
Johnson had some struggles last fall. He had 13 multi-hit games, including the team's only 5-hit contest, and tied for the team lead with 10 multi-RBI contests. But he also struck out at least twice in nine contests. For this season, the coaching staff talked with Johnson about consistency and having productive outs by seeing a lot of pitches or hitting the ball hard.
"There were the slumps," coach Johnson said. "The only thing that happens with maturity with hitters is you cut down your slumps. You don't make your best better. You cut down on your worst. I can see him hitting for a higher average this year. I can see him with more productive at-bats."