As a pitcher, Colton Johnson knows when not to bite on a breaking pitch, even one of his own slurvy curve balls — and because of the coronavirus pandemic, this baseball season’s been nothing but one off-speed pitch after another.


So, the 6-foot-4 left hander decided to return to Illinois State University, work on his graduate degree and take advantage of the NCAA’s offer of additional eligibility for spring sports athletes. He’ll be 22 when he suits up for the Redbirds in 2021.


"I turned down an offer after the draft," said Johnson. "It wasn’t enough."


The majors conducted a trimmed down draft this season, selecting only 160 players. Afterward, teams could only offer $20,000 signing bonuses to undrafted free agents.


Johnson is the son of Greg Johnson and Mary Bates of Kewanee. At Kewanee High School, he was team MVP his senior season, went 8-2 with 149 strikeouts and was a big reason the team won its first regional title since 1945.


For Illinois State, he’d become a "go-to" arm. He was the team’s only returning all-conference pitcher. Before the spring season was cut off, he’d started four games, made five appearances, thrown 25 innings and had 37 strikeouts and a 3.60 earned run average.


Next season, the majors will likely return to the 40-round draft. Even if their assessment of Johnson’s arm remains unchanged, Johnson feels he’ll be in a better place.


"Probably, it’ll be the same, money-wise," he said. "I’ll have a year of my masters done and only miss three months of professional baseball."


If he misses any. There is no indication the minor leagues will be playing this summer and there only a handful of college leagues up and running.


Even so, this decision gives him time to retool, improve his arsenal of off-speed pitches to counter his reliable fastball, hit the weight room and refocus. Oh, and get a lease on a new place to stay.


"I’ve been throwing with a group; we get out to the mound every Friday," said Johnson. "There’s a lot of professional guys around here year-round. I just joined right in with them."


On the academic side, he’ll be able to get a masters in sports management, which is his preferred vocation. "I’ve a bachelor’s in finance," he said. "It’s a good degree, but I had no idea what I was getting into. Sports management is more up my alley."


His plan is to give his arm a break during July, concentrating on just lifting weights. There is also the scrubbing floors part, which he’ll do as a part-time worker at Neponset schools.


"I might not completely shut down," he said. "Couple times a week, I’ll try to get some work in. Our throwing program starts in late July/early August. I’ll just slowly get in game shape. Work 1 inning, then two. It’s a slow thing."


If there was one game where Johnson showed his potential it was Feb 21 against No. 16-ranked Oklahoma. Johnson dueled Nationals’ draft pick Cade Cavalli, who was on the mound for the Sooners. Both went seven innings; Johnson had 10 strikeouts, two walks and gave up four hits while Cavalli had nine Ks, a walk and six hits allowed. Oklahoma won 2-1.


Johnson followed that up with an inning of work for a save that closed out an 8-7 win against No. 13-ranked Arkansas on March 3.


In fact, closing out a senior season properly is all part of the reason Johnson is coming back to Illinois State.


"My experience at ISU has been a blast for me," he said. "Obviously, some good feelings about going back."


Career pitching statistics


Year; ERA; Won; Loss; BB; SO;


2017; 7.40; 1; 5; 24; 24;


2018; 5.01; 3; 2; 24; 36;


2019; 4.61; 4; 1; 41; 62;


2020; 3.60; 2; 2; 6; 37;


Total; 5.21; 10; 10; 95; 159;