Right fielder Troy Johnston was the only certainty for the Rogers High baseball team heading into the season, and his hot start at the plate has the Rams rolling early on.
Heading into the week Johnston’s sporting a .579 batting average with five extra base hits including four doubles. But it’s not his start that leaves him smiling.
"There’s so many upsides with Rogers," Johnston said. "Our pitching is phenomenal and our lineup looks so much better … I’m just excited about everything coming along this season."
Johnston’s start has led a young Rogers team to a 6-3 overall record and a spot in third place (2-1) in the Class 4A SPSL South behind Puyallup (5-1, 2-0) and Emerald Ridge (4-2, 2-0).
Never miss a local story.
After last year when Rogers fell to sixth place in the South, the Rams just didn’t have a lot to hang their hats on. But there was Johnston, a team captain.
"We only had one captain coming into this season, and that was Troy," Rogers coach Matt Whitehead said. "He has the team’s respect from how hard he works."
It’s a growing respect the rest of league is starting to embrace.
In 19 games last year, Johnston had a .500 batting average while showing solid power with eight extra base hits. Those numbers put a lot of pressure on the Rams junior captain.
Teams know Johnston’s numbers from last season, so it’s a statewide respect that has grown for this Ram.
"(We were) told that Troy wasn’t going to get pitched to today," Whitehead said after Rogers’ 5-2 win over Wenatchee on March 21. "After his first-inning double, they wanted no part of him."
Johnston went 2-for-2 with two runs scored in Rogers’ win over Wenatchee. It’s those two runs Johnston scored against Wenatchee that mattered as they came after he was purposely walked.
"We just went up there looking to put a good swing on a pitch over the plate," Johnston said. "It was a team effort."
Even with great individual numbers, it’s about the team for Johnston.
Before the season, no player was as excited as Johnston about Rogers’ potential this season. How could he not? After all, he saw 68 players come to tryouts — all hungry for Ram baseball.
"It makes me very happy. Baseball’s a one-of-a-kind sport and it attracts a lot of people to it," he said.
Whitehead was pleased with the enthusiasm, and after compiling the talent for this year, he feels his team is ready to take that next step.
"I like seeing how a lot of our guys put in the work in the offseason," Whitehead said. "I like how (Jacob) Stone’s been hitting the other way."
The first baseman Stone — slotted behind Johnston at cleanup in the lineup — is showing similar results with a .353 average and seven runs batted in so far.
Finding Stone and players such as Jorge Lopez (.467 average) and Denning Blake (.333 average and 10 runs) has been a boon for the Rams this year.
But if Rogers wants to keep up with Puyallup and Emerald Ridge, the Rams will need starting pitchers Jake Talbot and Jon Bjerk to take the next step.
"I was expecting Jake Talbot (to step up) — he still hasn’t even reached his full potential," Whitehead said.
Talbot is starting to reach that ceiling as the Rams ace had eight strikeouts while facing 12 batters in a March 31 start against Puyallup.
Bjerk has been dominant this year, picking up wins over Wenatchee and against Bethel last Thursday.
“Bjerk is going to be big for us this year, and seeing him throwing well early is a good sign," Whitehead said.
It’s Bjerk’s composure on the mound that’s been his greatest progression as nothing seems to phase the big righthander. Even after Wenatchee jumped ahead 2-0, Bjerk just kept pounding the strike zone while trusting his stuff to get the Panthers out.
"It’s not about what happened before, it’s about what happened afterward," Bjerk said. "You have to have that mindset on the mound."
And that’s the mindset Rogers has taken this season. It’s not about how the team played last year, it’s about what it does this season. It’s easy to come up with that frame of thinking.
"We’re so much improved from last year, it’s insane," Johnston said. "We’re having something to look forward to this season and next season."