Brian Johnson has overcome a year of adversity to re-establish himself as a top pitching prospect for the Boston Red Sox.
Johnson, who sat out six weeks last season to battle anxiety issues, pitched brilliantly Saturday in leading Pawtucket to a 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Bisons.
The 26-year-old left hander allowed two earned runs over 7 2-3 innings. It was his eighth quality outing in eight starts this season, and that includes a win for Boston in a spot start against Toronto last month.
Johnson was rated this winter as the No. 7 prospect in the Boston system by Baseball America and No. 11 by MLB.com.
“From where he came from last year to where he is now, we are so proud of him,” said Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles.
Johnson’s pro career was cruising along on an upward trajectory when he made his Boston debut in July 2015. But three weeks later, he was shut down for the season due to nerve irritation in his left elbow.
Then in October 2015, Johnson had the traumatic experience of being carjacked at gun point outside a gas station near his home in Florida. (No one was injured, and the carjacker was chased down by police.)
While the elbow injury had fully healed with rest by the 2016 spring training, it affected Johnson’s mental approach to pitching with Pawtucket early last season.
“I never felt comfortable, and even when I was healthy I never trusted it because I pitched hurt for so long,” said Johnson, who had tried to pitch through the nerve pain for six weeks in 2015. “I just felt like I almost became accustomed to pitching hurt, and when I felt good I never could really get where I wanted to be.”
Anxiety leading up to starts became too much bear, as he worried about pain returning to his elbow if his arm hit the proper slot in his throwing motion. He asked the Red Sox for help exactly one year ago, and the organization got him counseling during a six-week stay on the temporary inactive list.
“You just never know,” Johnson said. “You never can predict you’re going to get carjacked or get depression or any of that. It felt like it all came at once, but I’m grateful for where I am now.”
Boles gives Johnson credit for being proactive in facing the problem. He got back on the mound for eight starts late last season.
“He hit it full force,” Boles said. “He had a great support system, and it’s just fun to watch him interact now with the guys. Last year he was more of a quiet personality. Now the interaction he has with his teammates, he’s done a terrific job.”
Johnson, 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, has a biting curveball, good command and the ability to mix four pitches. His fastball isn’t overpowering, but it has gotten back to being 90 or 91 mph, where it was before his injury.
Three of his five strikeouts Saturday came on 73 mph curves that fooled Bison batters.
“It’s a 12-6 curveball with down-bite,” Boles said, referring to the downward drop of the pitch. “It’s got real good spin and rotation, and it plays right off that fastball. He gets swings and misses out of it, he can finish with two strikes.”
“I was trying to attack the zone with all four pitches,” Johnson said. “It’s easy when your catcher is calling exactly what you want, and the defense played great.”
Johnson dropped his earned-run average to 2.82, fourth best in the International League.
“I don’t really look back, I don’t really look forward,” Johnson said. “I just go day to day. I think that’s what I got caught up in last year, looking behind and too far ahead. Now I’m just trying to go start to start.”