Johnson fourth backstop in 7 years for Illinois to cross northern border

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois baseball team is hoping to strike gold in Canada for the third consecutive time.

Illini head coach Dan Hartleb announced Monday the signing of catcher Aaron Johnson (Sussex Corner, New Brunswick) to a National Letter of Intent. Johnson will become the fourth Canadian catcher to put on orange and blue in the last seven years, and Illinois is hoping he can follow in the footsteps of its last two Canadian backstops, Chris Robinson and Lars Davis, both of whom were drafted in the third round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Johnson will enroll as a sophomore this upcoming school year and has taken a similar route to college as Davis. After high school Johnson was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 46th round of the 2006 MLB Draft but opted instead to attend Lethbridge College in order to get more playing experience.

Starring at Lethbridge’s Prairie Baseball Academy for two seasons and hitting .333 with 30 RBIs, seven doubles, a home run and nine stolen bases last season, Johnson played a key role on his under-17 team, leading it to a national championship by hitting .370 with two homers in the finals.

The Sussex Corner native is currently playing for the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Major Baseball League. Playing in the summer wooden bat league, Johnson is hitting .341 in 20 games with 18 RBIs, 15 runs, eight doubles, a triple and two home runs. Behind the plate, Johnson has thrown out 6-of-17 would-be base stealers.

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“Offensively, he’s another kid who’s used a wood bat his whole life, so it’ll be his first time with aluminum,” Illinois assistant coach Eric Snider said in a press release. “He’s an RBI guy who has a little juice in his bat, so he has some tools.”

Beginning his career at Illinois, Johnson will compete for the starting catcher position with sophomore Joe Mercurio, junior Chris Montgomery and redshirt sophomore Jake Mathis.

Whoever wins the starting job will have big shoes to fill behind the plate left by Davis, who is now in the Colorado Rockies’ minor league system. However, Johnson may have luck on his side with his north-of-the-border heritage.

The last five years the Illini have had a Canadian catcher in their lineup and it has worked well. Davis and Robinson combined to hit .345 with 181 RBIs, 36 home runs and 172 runs scored. Last season, Davis became just the 21st Illini player in history to hit for a .400 or better average, ending the season with exactly a .400 average. Davis also led llinois in hits, RBIs, runs scored and home runs last season.

Although the Illini won’t expect Davis’ numbers from Johnson, they are hoping he can help pick up some of the offensive production they lost with the departure of Davis.

“He’s along the lines of our former Canadian catchers,” Snider said in the press release. “He can catch and throw, and he handles the bat very well.”