Zach Johnston, who will be a senior this fall at Greely High, has been selected to pitch in the Area Code Underclass Games. The tournament is a invite-only event staged for Major League Baseball scouts. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In less than a year, Zach Johnston has gone from relative unknown in baseball circles to being invited to an elite showcase tournament for underclass high schoolers.

Johnston, 17, who was 5-2 with a 0.66 ERA in an All-State junior season at Greely High, will be among a select group of 175 players in the classes of 2023 and 2024 from across the United States who will play later this week in the Area Code Underclass Games at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The Area Code Games are an invite-only event, that starts with regional tryouts.

“It honestly means a lot,” Johnston said. “It’s super hard to get into, it’s (175) of the best kids in the country. Just to get invited to the tryouts is an honor. To make it is insane.”

Scouts from all 30 major league teams as well as top NCAA coaches will be in attendance. According to the tournament website, it “serves as the beginning of a long interview process culminating with the Major League Baseball Draft the summer of the athlete’s graduating year.”

Johnston is set to graduate high school next spring, but has announced he will take a gap year before playing for the University of Maryland, hence his classification as a Class of 2023 player. He will be eligible for the MLB draft in 2022.

“Absolutely it’s a really exciting opportunity and it’s really big and if I do well, good things could come from it, but you can’t get too excited, too nervous. Staying composed is really important,” he said.

Johnston verbally committed to Maryland prior to his junior season. At that point he was a skinny, 6-foot-3 prospect who had never played in a high school varsity game. He was recruited based on games he’d played with his club team, the Maine Lightning, which trains at the Edge Academy in Portland.

Now he stands 6-4 1/2, and in his first high school season struck out 85 while walking only nine in 42 2/3 innings. Johnston consistently threw all three of his pitches – fastball, curve and change-up – for strikes.

Greely baseball coach Derek Soule said there are several reasons Johnston would be picked for the Area Code contests, starting with the fact that he’s left-handed.

“Then, for his age, his velocity is really good but I think what they’re still imagining about him is that he’s still growing,” Soule said. “College scouts and pro scouts, they use these projected growth charts and try to project what a player will be. He could end up being 6-6, 6-7. And the other thing about him is he pounds the strike zone.”

After the high school season was finished, Johnston was invited to attend a regional Area Code tryout in New Jersey. Then came a call back to Brockton, Massachusetts. Johnston impressed again and was picked to attend the national games.

“I got some feedback from scouts who were at the tryout and the biggest thing they liked was his mound presence,” said Ryan Copp, Johnston’s coach with the Maine Lightning. “His ability to command three pitches in the zone and attack both sides of the plate with his fastball. They have guys throwing (fastballs) in mid-90s but he’s left-handed, he’s 6-5 and probably going to get bigger and taller, who knows where he’s going to end up. Zach is refined and able to command the baseball with whatever pitch he throws. And, Zach throws hard. He’s been up to 89 this summer.”

Copp noted, “This is a unique and rare opportunity. (Greater Portland) doesn’t typically have one of the quote-unquote best players in the country. This is the premier event in the country. This is hand selected. You can’t just show up.”

Johnston will be on the Yankees, one of seven teams named for major league franchises participating in the underclass tournament. There is also a five-day Area Code Games for players in the Class of 2022 (with some top 2023 players), which is being held this week in San Diego.

Copp said the most recent player from Maine to play in either of the Area Code formats was outfielder Trejyn Fletcher of Portland (Deering High), who played in the 2018 Area Code Games and went on to be a second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019.

Other Maine players who have attended include pitcher Mark Rogers of Topsham (Mt. Ararat) in 2003, and Regan Flaherty of Portland (Deering), the younger brother of Ryan Flaherty, in 2008. Rogers was chosen fifth overall in the 2004 MLB draft and pitched in the majors. Flaherty, who played college ball at Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky, was an Area Code teammate of Mike Trout and Mike Yastrzemski.


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