Jonathan Cannon was awash with excitement as he took the mound on Tuesday in Gainesville.
The flame-throwing, right-handed pitcher for the University of Georgia was back on the bump for the first time in four months. Since his freshman season for the Bulldogs ended prematurely, due to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s been itching to face live batters in a game setting.
Of all places, that return to the mound for the 6-foot-6 MLB prospect was at Chestatee High in a ‘sandlot’ outing as a member of the Gainesville Braves.
Cannon warmed up with double-digit pro scouts watching, which has been his life since he burst on the scene in high school. Once the game started, he threw two innings for the team co-owned by Gainesville High graduate and seven-year MLB pitching veteran Micah Owings.
And for Cannon, a rising sophomore or redshirt freshman (depending on how the NCAA classifies players next year), it was a thrill just to compete.
Besides, you can only throw so many bullpen sessions and stay sharp.
“It was so awesome to be back on the mound,” said Cannon who, in 2020, finished with a 3-0 record and 0.00 ERA in five appearances out of the Bulldogs bullpen. “It’s been so crazy this spring because the season was shut down and we’ve been cooped up in the house.
“Just to throw in a game setting is a thrill.”
Just like everyone in the baseball world, Cannon is trying to get back to peak form after a national-health crisis like we’ve never seen before. So far, he’s throwing well. The imposing pitcher, who tops out in the mid 90s with his fast ball during the college season, is focused on hitting his targets and pitch-count situations with the Gainesville Braves.
The Gainesville Braves were originally going to play in the Sunbelt League, which is sanctioned by MLB, but the league was shut down for the summer on June 23 due to COVID-19.
Owings and team manager Frank Fultz, the longtime strength and conditioning coach for the Atlanta Braves, are still facilitating scrimmages so players can do what they do best: play baseball. The Gainesville Braves are splitting their local outings between Chestatee High and Ivey-Watson Field.
Cannon was originally slated to play in the Cape Cod League, the premier summer destination for college baseball talent. However, the Cape Cod League was called off for 2020 shortly after the coronavirus broke out.
Cannon jumped at the opportunity to play for Owings over about a six-week span and get to talk strategy with a fellow member of the pitching fraternity.
“It’s not often you get to play summer ball for a guy with the baseball background like Micah Owings,” Cannon said. “And they run a great show with this team.”
The only matching piece of apparel that Gainesville Braves players have is a cap with a red G and a white-tipped spear through the middle. Instead of jerseys, shirts they wear are a reflection of which college these guys play baseball.
Cannon is coming off a superb freshman season with the second-ranked Bulldogs, who finished the season at 14-4 and were about to start SEC play when their season came to a screeching halt.
His final outing was regarded as the best of the season. On March 1, Cannon entered in relief against Georgia Tech and earned the win by throwing 4 2/3 innings of scoreless ball with five strikeouts at Coolray Field in Buford.
Georgia’s young star was in a nice groove.
Then, the season ended before St. Patrick’s Day.
Blame it all on the coronavirus.
Cannon said the Bulldogs got the news March 13 to return to Athens, while en route to Gainesville, Florida for the league opener against the Gators.
He knew getting a message to turn the bus around from athletics director Greg McGarity was a sign that things were serious. However, nobody could know they would be done for the season with 38 games (30 in league play) remaining on the schedule.
Since the season was rudely interrupted by coronavirus, Cannon will have four years of college eligibility remaining, per an NCAA ruling this spring.
Back at home in Alpharetta, Cannon was looking at a long gap in competition but was lucky to have his brother Matthew, a rising sophomore catcher at Centennial High, to throw with at the ballpark.
In baseball, there’s plenty of social distancing.
In fact, they turned it into a fun little game.
Brothers will always want to have bragging rights in sports over one another.
The younger brother helped catch Jonathan in throwing sessions a couple times a week. Matthew also got to take his cuts at the plate.
Jonathan told his brother he would take a bit of velocity off his pitches. However, it came with a caveat.
There was to be no trash talking with Jonathan putting it across the plate ‘only’ in the low 80s, he said.
The pitcher said there was friendly banter between the two, meaning he could groove a few at 100 percent down the heart of the plate.
That close relationship between the two brothers, four years apart in age, was vital for Jonathan to stay crisp off the mound.
Cannon is grateful to be in game-like situations with nine players on the field and umpires to call the games for the Gainesville Braves.
It doesn’t matter to him that there’s no matching uniforms, scoreboard keeping track of the game or league standings to follow.
This is baseball.
And as a competitor, that is all that matters to Cannon.