Creighton’s Evan Johnson had just eclipsed the 100-pitch mark after his fifth scoreless inning Sunday.

But the arm felt fine. His pitch mix seemed to be sharpening. The pesky and patient St. John’s lineup would surely challenge him with an upgraded set of tactics, but Johnson had been missing bats and freezing hitters in tense spots all day.

Plus, the right-hander spent all offseason expanding his arsenal and building his stamina to help his team in a meaningful moment like Sunday’s rubber match. So yes, he had more to give.

As it turned out, the Bluejays (31-11, 11-4) only needed one more inning from the senior. They tacked on an insurance run in the sixth and let their bullpen close out the 4-2 win over the Red Storm (27-21, 6-9).

But Johnson’s grit proved to be the difference on a day when a victory kept Creighton in contention for the Big East regular-season title and padded its NCAA regional at-large résumé. Sophomore catcher David Vilches wasn’t surprised to see Johnson deliver.

“When he stands out and gets aggressive with it, he’s low in the zone and can command his stuff,” Vilches said. “As long as he stays loose, focused and relaxed, he’s really effective.”

The Gilbert, Iowa, product struck out eight over six scoreless innings. He had to work out of a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, but surrendered one hit after that.

Johnson has produced a 2.25 ERA his past four starts — allowing 5.3 hits per nine innings and recording 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings during that stretch.

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“He’s about as committed an athlete as we have on the team,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “Very dedicated. He’s on a mission to be the best player he can be at this level.”

Because last season didn’t sit well with Johnson.

He threw 13⅓ innings, finished with a 6.08 ERA and had more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight).

So he worked on a rejuvenation plan with pitching coach Eric Wordekemper after the season. They developed a change-up and a cutter. Johnson hit the weight room. He matured in the Northwoods League (1.80 ERA), then built on his successes in fall ball.

Now he’s serving as a key piece on Creighton’s weekend rotation — a role that he and the coaches were envisioning a year ago.

That’s why Johnson had no hesitations Sunday when he fired a 2-1 pitch into the strike zone with the bases loaded in the second inning. And it’s why he buzzed an elevated fastball by a Red Storm hitter in the fourth, stranding two men. And it’s why a final pitch count of 121 didn’t faze him.

That’s what he’s been working for.

“After last year, I needed to find some way to contribute, instead of just being on the team to take up space,” Johnson said. “I put a lot of time in.”

His efforts Sunday put the Jays a half-game behind first-place Xavier in the standings — but the Musketeers (23-27, 12-4) are finished with their conference slate after the cancellation of their series finale against Villanova (13-35, 4-10). Creighton has one Big East series left — hosting the Wildcats this week in a three-game series that begins Thursday.

So he worked on a rejuvenation plan with pitching coach Eric Wordekemper after the season. They developed a change-up and a cutter. Johnson hit the weight room. He matured in the Northwoods League (1.80 ERA), and then built on his successes in fall ball.

Now he’s serving as a key piece on Creighton’s weekend rotation — a role that he and the CU coaches were envisioning a year ago.

That’s why Johnson had no hesitations Sunday when he fired a 2-1 pitch into the strike zone with the bases loaded in the second inning. And it’s why he fearlessly buzzed an elevated fastball by a Red Storm hitter in the fourth, stranding two men. And it's why a final pitch-count of 121 didn't faze him.

That's what he's been working for.

“After last year, I needed to find some way to contribute, instead of just being on the team to take up space,” Johnson said. “I put a lot of time in.”

His efforts Sunday put the Jays a half-game behind first-place Xavier in the standings — but the Musketeers (23-27, 12-4) are finished with their conference slate following the cancellation of their series finale against Villanova (13-35, 4-10). Creighton has one Big East series left (home against the Wildcats this week).

Reporter - Creighton athletics

Jon covers Creighton athletics, the College World Series and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @JonNyatawa. Phone: 402-444-6611

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