The feeling Brian Johnson had when he stepped off the mound after his first start of the season this year for Single A Salem was completely different from what it felt like to go five innings a year ago.
He allowed only six Myrtle Beach Pelicans to reach base, sent seven back to their dugout with K’s, of the two runs he allowed only one was earned, and for the first time in a long time the whole thing didn’t feel like a five-inning stress test.
“After I was done, I couldn’t wait to get back to the mound,” Johnson said.
Last year, he couldn’t wait to get off it. Once he did, he was in no hurry for his turn in the rotation to come back around.
“It was almost a weight off my shoulders once I was done,” said Johnson, the Sox’ first-round pick in 2012. “I was tip-toeing around that fifth day.”
At the time, he was doing his best to keep from dragging his doubts and worries to the mound.
His first professional season was cut short just four starts in, when he was struck in the face by a line drive on just the second pitch of what was supposed to be a coming-out party for him at the 2012 Futures at Fenway game.
In a blink, he wasn’t just a pitcher working his way through the Sox system, he was a player working his way back from orbital bone fractures on the right side of his face.
He wasn’t simply pitching and developing anymore. Whenever he took the mound, he was convincing himself it couldn’t happen again.
“It was a process, I’m not going to lie,” Johnson said. “It was humbling, to say the least. It took a while to feel normal. It took a good bit to go out there. I think the biggest mental aspect was going out there and trying to get a W and compete for my team instead of worrying and going out there thinking to myself, ‘Go out there and don’t get hit.’ ”
In 19 starts between the Gulf Coast League, the Greenville Drive, and Salem, Johnson went 2-6 with a 2.54 ERA.
There were ways he wanted to improve as a pitcher. Even when he was 1-6 in Greenville, the Drive’s pitching coach, Paul Abbott, would find ways for Johnson to challenge himself.
If he gave up a double with less than two outs, Abbott would tell him, “Make a game of it.”
“Compete with yourself,” Johnson said. “That makes it fun. Say, ‘No, I’m not letting that run score. I’m going to make a game within a game and see what I can do.’ ’’
The more he focused on pitching, the less he thought about the past.
“It was tough because you’re trying to develop,” Johnson said. “Like I’m trying to work on certain stuff and trying to develop my game, but in the back of my head I’m kind of second-guessing myself as to what could happen, if it could happen again, stuff like that.”
But when he left the mound in Myrtle Beach, he wasn’t thinking about anything except his next start.
“Now when I’m done, I worked my butt off and do everything I can to prepare myself for that fifth day, because I can’t wait for it,” Johnson said.
“I enjoy pitching, I can’t wait to get out there that fifth day.”
Johnson made five starts this season for the Salem Red Sox, going 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA.
Then at around midnight after a long, rain-delayed win over Winston-Salem in late April, he was pulled to the side by Salem manager Carlos Febles and pitching coach Kevin Walker.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” Johnson said. “They called me in and I was literally thinking to myself, ‘What did I do?’ ”
He was on pitching-chart duty that night. The first thing he asked was, “What did I mess up?”
Febles and Walker yanked his chain as long as they could before cracking smiles and breaking the news.
“We’re just kidding, man, You’re going up to Portland,” they told him.
Johnson immediately phoned home.
“It was an awesome experience,” Johnson said. “It’s not the call to the big leagues, but it’s still awesome to call your mom and dad and brother and sisters and say, ‘Hey, I just got promoted to Double A.’ ”
In 14 starts with the Sea Dogs, Johnson is 8-2 with a 2.32 ERA and 62 strikeouts.
The list of things he’s looked to improve this season seems never-ending: developing his changeup, having the confidence to throw it in any count, throwing his breaking ball behind in the count, throwing fastballs whether he’s ahead or behind.
“I think learning and developing now is part of the success and why everything’s starting to click for me,” Johnson said. “I think the biggest thing is being healthy and having fun. I think those two things correlate. If you’re healthy, you’re not really second-guessing yourself or worrying about anything. You’re just going out there, having fun and worrying about your game.
“But I’m just thankful it’s all over with. That’s the best feeling, knowing that, I think I’m a better player for it. I think every thing happens for a reason.”
Three to watch
Alex Hassan, Pawtucket — Since being sent back to the PawSox after a quick stint with the parent club, Hassan is hitting .354 with five home runs and 22 RBIs. Four of those deep balls have come in his past 10 games, a stretch that’s seen him hit .344 and slug .750.
Joe Gunkel, Salem — The Sox’ 18th-rounder in last year’s draft pitched through a monthlong stretch of tough luck, but if you throw out the six-run blowup against the Frederick Keys, he’s got a 2.41 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 33⅔ innings over six starts.
Wendell Rijo, Greenville — He cooled down considerably after hitting .309 in April, but over his past 10 games, the 18-year-old second baseman is hitting .229 with two homers and eight RBIs. His four-RBI night against the Lakewood Blue Claws on Wednesday gave him 32 for the season.
PawSox slugger Bryce Brentz, who has been out since May with a strained hamstring, started his rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League on Wednesday. He went 1 for 2 against the GCL Rays in his first game. Before the injury, Brentz was hitting just .230 with six homers and 28 RBIs for the PawSox . . . In four games since being promoted from Greenville to Salem, Carlos Asuaje is 3 for 15 with a homer, three RBIs, and five strikeouts. He played five positions for Greenville, and so far with Salem, he’s played three games at second and one in left field . . . After two rehab games in the Gulf Coast League, Ryan Lavarnway (broken wrist) was moved to Portland, where he’s gone 3 for 11 with a homer and two RBIs in three games.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.