Wes Johnson calls decision to join LSU Tigers ‘very tough,’ as Minnesota Twins adjust to ‘unique’ in-season transition

CLEVELAND — Wes Johnson knows the timing isn’t ideal for the Minnesota Twins. It is not easy for him either, or without personal pain.

Johnson is leaving the Twins to return to his college coaching roots, taking the position of LSU’s pitching coach. He said the decision took an emotional toll on him.

“Very tough,” Johnson said Monday at progressive field ahead of the Twins’ game against the Guardians. “I don’t know if I’ve slept much in the last week. Very, very, very hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Johnson’s move comes as the American League Central-leading Twins opened a five-game series against second-placed Cleveland Guardians. Johnson will fulfill his duties as Minnesota’s pitching coach through this streak, which ends Thursday.

Sonny Gray threw an excellent seven innings in Monday’s opening game, an 11-1 win for the Twins, and got emotional after the game while discussing Johnson’s departure.

“It’s a difficult question,” said the right-hander, who only allowed three singles. “It’s someone I’ve become very close with, and I think if you know me at all, letting people in and forming relationships in that regard, I’ve resisted very strongly.

“I was very mad at him today. I was very happy for him today. I used every emotion and everything that went through, I kind of used it to bring it into the game.”

Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, said the team has ongoing discussions about how to replace Johnson for the remainder of this season and beyond. Johnson joined the Twins in 2019 after coaching in Arkansas. Bullpen coach Pete Maki and assistant pitching coach Luis Ramirez both play important roles in the near term.

“It involves a lot of juggling,” Falvey said. “Our plan here is to work with the internal group we need to cast Wes.”

Falvey called Johnson’s mid-season departure “unique” but said he was confident the Twins were prepared. So did manager Rocco Baldelli, who called a team meeting Sunday night after arriving in Cleveland to update his players on Johnson’s decision.

“We won’t ask anyone to be Wes,” he said. “That’s not how life works and that’s not how baseball works. We’ll make sure we give our pitchers everything they need. We are as well prepared as possible for something like this.”

Johnson’s departure was as surprising as his arrival. It was widely believed that he was the first college pitching coach to advance directly to the major leagues when the Twins hired him from Arkansas, the 2018 College World Series national runner-up. Johnson spent nine seasons as a college pitching trainer before the twins plucked him, keeping in mind his background in biomechanics. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology.

“Knowing Wes and having the chance to enjoy and see him all these years, it’s not incredibly surprising that he’s returning to the collegiate game,” Baldelli said. “Am I incredibly lucky that it’s happening in the middle of the season? Of course not. Nobody is. There’s no escaping this discussion, but I’m not surprised that he’s returning to something he’s passionate about. He loves and he’s really good at it.”

Johnson was born in Atlanta and raised in Arkansas, where he made his home off-season. He also had stints in Mississippi State, Dallas Baptist, and Central Arkansas. He was a high school coach before entering the college ranks.

Johnson presided over pitching staffs for division champion teams for his first two years. The Twins have returned to the top of the AL Central this season with a 3.78 team ERA that ranks 11th in the majors. The twins finished 26th in ERA last year, fourth in 2020 and ninth in 2019, while Johnson was in charge of staff.

The Twins set a club-record 1,463 strikeouts in a single season in 2019. Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi were 2019 All-Star selections, and Taylor Rogers joined the team in 2021. The Twins’ pitchers regularly praised Johnson’s energy, positivity and wisdom Saturday night when Chris Archer threw five shutout innings with a Colorado-legal hit.

“Wes is one of my biggest advocates,” Archer said after the 6-0 win at Target Field. “We put in a lot of work between starts, mentally and physically.”

Johnson said he’s proud of the influence he’s had on Minnesota’s young pitchers.

“I think I brought energy every day,” he said. “I think I prepared myself every day to win, like I’m doing right now and like I’m going to do until the end of this road trip. Nobody’s going to look at me and say they didn’t show up for work.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/34158198/wes-johnson-calls-decision-join-lsu-tigers-very-tough-minnesota-twins-adjust-unique-season-transition Wes Johnson calls decision to join LSU Tigers ‘very tough,’ as Minnesota Twins adjust to ‘unique’ in-season transition

Emma Bowman

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