Tyler Johnson has played a lot of baseball in his life, but nothing was quite like this.
He’s won district titles as a Little Leaguer and a high schooler, and this summer, he won one of his biggest titles yet: The Northwoods League World Series.
Johnson graduated from Croswell-Lexington High School in 2021 where he started for the Pioneers during his entire varsity career, earning the BWAC MVP as a senior. He committed to pitch for Alma College upon graduation, and this past spring, he accumulated a 3-3 record with the Scots with 52 strikeouts across 59 innings pitched.
He said his college coach had approached him in the winter about joining the Northwoods League, which is known as “the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players.” Johnson soon signed a summer-long contract with the Kalamazoo Growlers where he’d play 72 baseball games throughout the Great Lakes region over the course of just 80 days.
“This is what prepares you for the Minor or Major League schedules,” Johnson said. “That’s the whole point of the Northwoods League doing it like that is to show you if you can do it or not, and I think I proved to myself and others that I can.”
And he sure did.
On Aug. 17, the Growlers were playing on the road in the semifinal game against the Wisconsin Rapid Rafters. It was the bottom of the eighth and the game was tied 6-6 when Johnson was called to the mound.
He struck out the last two batters of the inning, giving his team a chance to win it at the plate. After an unsuccessful attempt, Johnson returned to the mound where he threw two more strikeouts, giving his team one more chance in the top of the 10th.
“I was pretty confident because in the final three weeks before playoffs I had been thrown into a lot of situations like that,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t expecting to be put into a situation like that, but I was mentally ready to go into that type of situation.”
The Growlers managed a two-run homer for security in the top of the 10th, leaving it to their defense to punch the ticket to the Northwoods League World Series Championship the next day.
Johnson returned to the mound once again and threw two more strikeouts. With an 8-6 victory, the Growlers were going to the championship.
“That was awesome. [The Rapid Rafters] had the best record in the Northwoods, so to be able to take them down was really exciting, and then to be the guy who threw the last pitch was even better,” Johnson said.
He struck out six of the 11 batters he faced that night, giving up one hit and two walks to earn the win.
The next night the Growlers hit the road again to play the Duluth Huskies for the title, and they won it in dominant fashion, 8-3. It was the first-ever Northwoods League World Series title in Kalamazoo franchise history.
Johnson said that while spending the summer on the road playing baseball seemed a bit daunting at first, the experience itself was worth it, but the trophy made it even better. He finished the season playing in 25 games, in which he went 5-2 with one save. He threw for 40 innings and struck out 46 batters, finishing with an ERA of 2.70.
"They send the schedule out and you look at it and it’s 72 baseball games in 78 days or something crazy like that, so it’s a lot of baseball,” Johnson said, “but after playing in it and getting back home, I know I made the right decision.”
He said he played with about 70 different other college ball players from all across the country, which was an awesome experience, and he learned a lot about the importance of mental strength – especially when a chance for a championship is on the line.