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College | Story | 4/9/2020

Hughes earns opportunities

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Jonathan Hughes (Georgia Tech Athletics)

By his account, Jonathan Hughes’ recruitment to Georgia Tech happened due to adjacency.

Hughes, who is from Flowery Branch, Ga., played for the East Cobb baseball program is high school. One of his teammates on those East Cobb teams was Carter Hall, son of Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall.

“It helps when you’re the same year as the coach’s son,” Hughes said. “We played at East Cobb on the same team. When you play on teams like that, you already get some type of look. They weren’t necessarily there to recruit, but they’re there to watch his son and you end up killing two birds with one stone…They were heavy on us that year, especially with Blake Jackson going to Tech, Carter Hall, Alonzo Jones ended up going to Vanderbilt. We had a lot of high-profile athletes on those teams, which brought a lot of scouts to those games.

“When you play in these high-level Perfect Game events against good teams, that’s what those scouts and college coaches want to see.”

Ask scouts, and Hughes was one of the main attractions on the team. His fastball was up to 95 mph during his senior year of high school and had been mid-90s for a few years before that as well.

He was named to the All-Tournament Team at a number of Perfect Game events in his career, as well as a Most Valuable Pitcher award at the 2013 17u BCS Finals, playing for the East Cobb Astros 16u squad.

High school hurlers who can crack a catcher’s mitt with a 95 mph fastball typically have a couple tough decisions to make. The first is where they will make a college commitment. Hughes had done that, officially signing with Georgia Tech in November of 2014.

Come June of the next season, just after graduating high school, Hughes was taken in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles.

Another decision was needed.

“I had talked with a bunch of guys and prayed and tried to decide which the right way for me to go was, and I just followed my gut,” Hughes said. “I talked to my parents a lot. I knew if I went and played [professional] baseball and got hurt, where’s my backup plan? For me to go to Georgia Tech and come across with a degree, then I can go and play pro ball and if anything happens, you don’t think it will happen, but if, then having a degree from a prestigious place definitely helps out.”

Hughes enrolled at Georgia Tech and was immediately thrust into the weekend rotation for the Yellow Jackets.

Through his first five starts, he was everything the coaching staff thought he could be, and everything Hughes knew he could be.

A 2.45 ERA led to a 3-1 record over those five starts, allowing only seven walks and four extra-base hits in 25 2/3 innings. The Jackets were 4-1 in those five starts, the lone loss against Florida State.

“Coming into [my freshman year], everyone sort of knew me because of what happened in 2015 [with the draft],” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to be the poster child of anything. It was just, I didn’t take the money, I didn’t go play pro ball, I’m coming here to play ball and go to school. I wanted to earn everything. I didn’t want them to give me anything because of x, y, z. I had an expectation to be that guy, yes. I thought I could be that guy, and you have to have that mindset going in…I just wanted to go out there and earn what I came here to do.”

Through five starts, he had. Then the growth plate in his elbow became a problem.

It wasn’t his UCL. It wasn’t Tommy John surgery. There were misconceptions out there about that, Hughes said. The timeline was about the same, though.

The rehab process was mostly about getting his range of motion back and finding his release points again.

Hughes was back for the start of the next season, which turned into his redshirt freshman season, having only thrown in those five games during his true freshman year.

In hindsight, Hughes said he wishes he would have taken a little more time to get right.

“We worked and worked and worked, but obviously you can see between my freshman and [redshirt freshman] year, they were two completely different people,” he said. “Even my [redshirt sophomore] year, not the same person.”

Hughes knows himself better than anyone. The numbers back up his claim.

In his redshirt freshman year, he posted a 5.68 ERA over 25 1/3 innings. During his redshirt sophomore year, he threw 16 2/3 innings to a tune of a 5.94 ERA.

The following summer is when things started to click again, finally.

“After my [redshirt sophomore] year I went to play summer ball, and I worked and worked, and when I went to play in the Coastal Plains League, that was a big change. I started to get velocity back, stamina back, got my feel back. Throwing strikes and throwing it where I want. Came back that next season and it was good, but not close to what I was wanting, but a whole lot better. My [redshirt junior] season was probably my best season back. I felt like me again.”

As a main member of the Tech bullpen, Hughes lowered his ERA by almost a full run and finished the year with a 9-2 record.

It was a step in the right direction.

He was on the Cape the summer after, throwing 12 innings for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks and sporting a 4.50 ERA.

Bullpen success was one thing. Hughes came to Georgia Tech with a different plan for himself, though.

“I came in here and wanted to earn what I get,” he said. “I didn’t earn any of that in those years that I was coming back. I take responsibility for that. I wasn’t me. It was me making an excuse for this or that. That’s not what I needed to do. But I wanted to help out the team any way I could, whether it be on or off the field. I just wanted to be that person who could produce what I came here to do. I felt like, coming into this season, that I could be that guy. I feel like I earned that spot, I got it, and it was very cool to go through. It’s like all my work paid off.”

Back on campus for his redshirt senior year, Hughes earned his way back into the weekend rotation for the first time since early in his redshirt sophomore year.

Through four starts, he was 2-1 and led Tech in innings at 21 2/3 thrown. Hughes saved his best for last, tossing seven innings of one-run, nine-strikeout ball against Virginia Tech in his last start before the season got shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 developments.

In the moments after the game, there was nothing but happiness. Hughes felt back. It was his best start in a Georgia Tech uniform, and the road to get there had been a lot longer than he had expected it to be.

At that point, he didn’t know it would be his last start of the year.

“People would think I would be frustrated,” he said. “I’ve gone through it all. Nothing bothers me. I just live in the moment. After that game, I was super happy. Yeah, I was hungry to get back out there. But after all this stuff came down…it was crazy. I found out our season was canceled. People were like, ‘Are you sad?’ I’m not unhappy. Yes, it’s disappointing, but I’ve gone through it all. What I’ve gone through in all my life and all my days in baseball is, ‘You know what, there’s a plan.’ I’ve always stuck with that.”

Now Hughes has another decision to make. The NCAA has granted another year of eligibility to all spring sport athletes.

He could come back to Georgia Tech for one more year as a Yellow Jacket. He is set to graduate this spring, and he has already thought about enrolling in graduate school classes.

For now, there’s some sitting and waiting involved. He doesn’t know what will happen with the draft. One day at a time, basically.

“Nobody knows exactly what’s going on,” he said. “I have another year of eligibility. We’ll see how the draft goes. I can definitely come back and play another year. I could do graduate school. That’s not out of the picture. We’ll see how the draft goes, how the next couple months go, and that’s when I’ll know exactly what I’ll be doing.”

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