The "Crazy" Path of Georgia Tech's Jonathan Hughes That Nobody Could've Predicted
Crazy is what defines the journey that Georgia Tech's RHP Jonathan Hughes has navigated through in baseball. From being a top 75 MLB Draft pick to overcoming a season-ending injury, the redshirt senior looks back at the past five years with no regrets.
"I've gone through just about everything," said Hughes. "But it was one heck of a ride."
A native from Flowery Branch (Ga.), Hughes was a highly touted pitcher out of high school. His mid-90s fastball impressed pro scouts and he was selected No. 68 overall by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2015 MLB Draft. Despite a big signing bonus, the second-rounder opted for college ball at Tech over an early major league career.
"There's a lot that went on," Hughes said of his decision to play with the Yellow Jackets. "Life after baseball, that was a big key. I talked with Danny Hall before, they were always heavy on, 'we want you to get your degree.' The second thing I would say that was a big thing, it's a different type of competition. High school is one thing. College is one thing. MLB is totally another thing. Minor league itself, I felt like I was prepared. As I've gone through college, I feel like I have gotten more prepared and set up nicely to start a pro career now than I would have been out of high school."
His freshman year, Hughes created waves as the Sunday starter for the Jackets. He posted a 3-1 record with a 2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings before an elbow injury on his throwing arm cut his season short.
It was assumed to be an UCL injury that would require Tommy John surgery. However, a closer look at his right elbow indicated a different problem.
"They didn't really have a name for it but my growth plate in my elbow had not fully closed," Hughes said. "Dr. Andrews took a look at it. He said the UCL was fully intact, there was nothing wrong with it. Once you looked at my growth plate, he said that was where all the pain was coming from. They put 6 1/2 inch screws through my growth plate, which is still in today."
Although the recovery process following surgery was a challenge for Hughes, the setback wouldn't keep him from returning to the game he excelled at with talent and ease. Focused on remaining healthy, Hughes went back to the mound in 2017.
"It was tough. I hadn't gone through anything like that ever," Hughes said. "I still had the love for the game. I had the passion to come back. So there was nothing to the point where I got, you know, discouraged on anything. I was working to get back."
However, Hughes wouldn't see the instant success many had anticipated as a starter during his redshirt freshman season. In eight starts, he went 1-2 with a 5.68 ERA in 25.1 innings pitched. As a redshirt sophomore, he pitched 16.2 innings and finished with a 5.94 ERA. He continued to work on his form until he found himself as a major key cog in Tech's bullpen in 2019 - lowering his ERA to 5.09 in 53.0 innings.
"I feel like I came back a little fast. And I wasn't that pitcher that could produce like they knew I was coming into campus my freshman year, which flipped my roles," said Hughes. "I was one of those guys that was waiting for my name to get called to get ready and go throw. But I felt like up until a certain point I wasn't producing like I wanted to which hurt me more. I was wanting to make an impact on the team in a positive way, not in a negative way."
One of Hughes' biggest moments - and one that still stands out in his mind - came during the semifinals of the 2019 ACC Baseball Tournament.
"If I look back at a certain year, that year was just one to remember," Hughes said of the 2019 season. "We got to the ACC Tournament and Keyton Gibson had just started that game and gave us a great start. I got to come in that game and almost finished it off. I was one out away, but it definitely was a game that I felt like I was back. It really gave me a push."
Hughes went five innings that night, tying his season long. He threw 72 pitches with two hits allowed against 20 batters in a 9-2 win over NC State.
Following a solid 2019 campaign in which he recorded a team-high-tying nine wins, Hughes felt like himself again. He entered his redshirt senior season penciled back into the weekend rotation.
As the 2020 season progressed, Hughes was 2-1 in four starts. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound righty had a career night against Virginia Tech as the Jackets kicked off ACC play. In a 4-3 win against the Hokies, Hughes tossed a career-long 7.0 innings, allowing one earned run and striking out a career-high nine batters.
However, the forced cancellations of college games amidst the COVID-19 outbreak caused an abrupt ending to Hughes' momentum-building season.
"I had to take awhile to absorb what just happened," Hughes said of the stolen season. "I was shocked, everything just got cancelled out of the blue. But you know... I'm not mad at anybody. It's out of our control."
Along with collegiate sports, professional sports were affected by the novel coronavirus as well. With the major league baseball season indefinitely placed on hold, the MLB has made changes to its 2020 draft to budget financial costs. With a possible start date in mid-July, the draft could be reduced to five rounds.
With the future still unknown for Hughes regarding the upcoming draft, the opportunity to return back to Tech is still an open door. Even though Hughes is set to graduate this spring with a business degree, the NCAA granted spring-student athletes an additional year of eligibility.
"I'm excited to have another shot potentially," Hughes said. "I think that returning is definitely an option that I keep in my head and in my back pocket. Nobody really knows exactly what's going on... right now, the potential of me having that extra year is definitely still there. I'll definitely have a decision to make once everything kind of gets figured out on the draft end. We just have to wait and see what what happens."
Whether Hughes returns to suit up in white and gold, or finds himself in a fresh minor league uniform next year, the path he's walked on heading towards the future is one for the books.
"It was nothing that anybody would have thought would have happened, you know, coming out as a high draft pick," said Hughes. "But it is what it is. I've learned a lot and I think I've taken a lot of lessons from it. But it was something that was definitely crazy."
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