What’s it like facing IMG Academy’s star-studded lineup? Even ‘phenomenal’ isn’t always enough

By Cory McCartney

EMERSON, Ga. — Relentless. Loaded. Intimidating. Daunting.

Whatever verbiage you want to conjure up, it fits IMG Academy’s lineup. A collection of 14 Division-I commits, headlined by the No. 1 player in the Class of 2022 in Elijah Green, who is in the running to be the top pick in next summer’s MLB Draft. It’s abundantly clear why the Ascenders have led Max Prep’s national rankings, currently sitting third.

Consider Baylor’s Patrick Johnson unfazed.

“That’s just not him,” said Baylor coach Greg Elie. “He gets up there and throws to his catcher and lets his D work and gets after it. He couldn’t have pitched a better game. He was phenomenal.”

The Middle Tennessee State-bound junior scattered five hits across six innings with one earned run during Friday’s matchup at the Prep Baseball Report High School Select. He was, in a word, dealing. But, in a testament to how potent IMG’s lineup is, “phenomenal” wasn’t enough, as uncommitted Nate Selmon delivered the walk-off home run to give the Ascenders a 2-1 win.

“I think they were surprised I was going to challenge them, especially since I don’t throw 90, 95,” Johnson said of his approach against the star-studded lineup. “Just me throwing 86 and challenging them. … Curveball was working well and then I was spotting outside my two-seam. I like my two-seam outside.”

Johnson kept the Ascenders hitless until Florida commit Stone Russell cashed in with a one-out single on a line drive to center, then they followed with another as Arkansas-bound Drake Varnado doubled. Back-to-back walks to Green and James Wood (Mississippi State) gave IMG the lead, but when it looked like the flood gates might open, Johnson responded.

He got Tommy White to hit into an inning-ending double play, followed that up with another groundout to end the fourth after Selmont doubled, then worked a double play and a strikeout around a pair of singles in the fifth. Aided by catcher Jonathan Larrea throwing out a runner who had reached on error to start the sixth, Johnson made it through the sixth having not allowed an Ascender to get past second base following those third-inning walks.

“I knew they were going to put the ball in play,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a strikeout pitcher. Just challenge them and let me defense work. I knew they could make the plays.”

As did his offense, as Baylor broke through with a hit by Larrea that at first appeared to be a go-ahead homer before it hit off the top of the left field wall. The Red Raiders instead settled on a game-tying single.

But it was IMG that made the play that mattered most, as Selmont belted a Johnson breaking ball over the left-center field wall before leaping onto home plate, where he was mobbed by teammates.

“Third swing, hangs that same slider/curveball that he’d been throwing the entire day and got a good swing on it and it wen out,” Selmont said. “I was looking for anything to hit and that (pitch) just kind of looked like a beachball up there. Easy to see the spin and I was able to get enough under it and put it out.”

It’s a pick-your-poison kind of lineup, and in a close lose, Johnson saw positives as the Red Raiders — ranked 22nd via Max Preps — went toe-to-toe with IMG. the pitcher giving up six hits in all with four strikeouts and three walks.

“It just helps prepare us for close games,” he said. “Up in Tennessee we don’t have talent like they do. It was a good game. Feel like if I didn’t hang that curveball, we could have done better.”

Said Elie of the challenge of facing the Ascenders roster “You can’t change ourselves too much. We come out and we attack the baseball and we try and barrel balls up and our pitchers fill the zone up and we try to let our really good D work behind them. That’s exactly what Patrick did. That was a helluva high school baseball game … To be walked-off, bottom of the seventh like that, it hurts.”

Middle Tennessee State commit Patrick Johnson scattered six hits with four strikeouts and three walks against IMG Academy’s potent lineup.