The 112th pitch on the cloudy Friday afternoon in Punta Gorda, Florida began in the same manner as the first two hours and nine minutes before: with Riley Johnson licking his fingers, as is his custom before every delivery. On that final pitch, the North Dakota State sophomore Johnson vaulted himself into elite company.
Johnson, NDSU’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty, stood on the mound at South County Regional Park on the precipice of history. He delivered pitch No. 112 to Chandler Debrosse, inducing a ground ball to second baseman Drew Fearing. When the ball hit the mitt of first baseman Mason Pierzchalski, Johnson etched his name in Bison record books, tossing the team’s first no-hitter since 2004. After that, it gets foggy.
“I threw the pitch, and I remember it getting hit to Drew Fearing. I kind of clenched up a little bit and thought, ‘It’s really going to happen,’ and then it did,” Johnson recalled. “It’s something where you don’t remember everything because I kind of blacked out during it. It was pretty awesome, and then everyone rushed the field. It was a cool feeling.”
The hurler from Apple Valley, Minnesota wasn’t initially concerned with his quest for a no-no. Johnson found himself entrenched in a pitchers’ duel with opposing starter Andrew Hinckley. The two countered each other until NDSU managed to scratch across a run in the third inning. Hinckley was lifted after the sixth and took a hard-luck loss thanks to Johnson’s dazzling outing.
Johnson features a fastball, changeup and curveball, and about midway through the game realized he had command of his arsenal. “In the middle of the game I thought about it once because I turned around and saw the scoreboard and I was like, ‘Oh.’ That was when I had a perfect game still,” he said. “As the game went on, I just felt really good and felt like I was putting my pitches wherever I wanted them.”
The backing of one of the NCAA’s top defensive teams saved Johnson’s bid on two occasions. NDSU’s .978 fielding percentage is No. 21 in Division I, and the Bison flashed the leather in support of Johnson.
Fearing made a diving stop in the third inning, and third baseman Matt Elsenpeter made a similar play in the seventh frame to preserve the no-hitter. “Those were two that kind of stick out to you because they were both really great plays. Without those, (the no-hitter) doesn’t happen,” Johnson said.
Johnson took a perfect game through five and two-thirds innings when he walked a batter. His fielding error in the next at-bat made it seem that his bid at history would come to a screeching halt.
Nursing a 1-0 lead, Johnson buckled down. “I just kind of thought, ‘Get back to work. It’s not a big deal. Just get out of the inning and get us back in the dugout,'” he explained. A step off the mound and a deep breath got the Bison out of the inning.
The sophomore never looked back from the perilous inning, recording the final 10 outs of the game, striking out eight batters. His no-no is the first in program history against a Division I opponent.
Johnson has posted a 3-5 record in 10 starts this season alongside a 4.52 earned run average. A major area of improvement for the young pitcher has been in his batting average against, which he has shaved 3.5 percentage points off since his freshman year. His 6.79 strikeouts per nine innings puts him in the top 15 in the Summit League in the category.
The development of his changeup this season has become a go-to pitch for Johnson. Alongside his curve, Johnson has two quality breaking balls. “My changeup is my out pitch or my strikeout pitch. It’s gotten really good this year. I didn’t really throw it before. The curveball is to keep hitters off balance and keep them guessing and mix all three in,” he explained.
Johnson weighed offers from other colleges before electing to attend NDSU. “I thought about what seemed like the best fit and the coaching staff I like the most, and it led me right here,” he said.
Still with room to mature, Johnson lists areas for improvement. “(I want to) keep improving all of my pitches and my location and get stronger in the weight room. And also improving on being a leader on the team and setting an example for younger guys,” he remarked.
On the hill, Johnson tries to mirror the macho that the all-time leader in no-hitters Nolan Ryan — noted for his unforgiving presence — projected. “The way he attacked hitters and played the game, he was always pumped up and I like the way he played,” he said.
With a no-hitter to his name, Riley Johnson’s name is indelibly carved into NDSU record books.