SEATTLE — It won’t be too long before the Red Sox look to Brian Johnson to help fix their leaky rotation. The lefthander has a 2.72 earned run average in seven starts for Triple A Pawtucket, putting himself in position to answer the call when it comes.
From across the country, Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino is following along closely.
Johnson and Zunino weren’t just teammates at the University of Florida for three seasons, they were roommates and good friends. Zunino was the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, with Johnson going 31st.
“I probably caught every game he pitched in college,” Zunino said on Friday before the Red Sox played the Mariners. “He was a huge part of our team. Brian had great stuff and when I watch him now, he’s fine-tuning everything.”
Johnson was 22-12 with a 3.85 ERA for the Gators. He also played first and hit .324 with 15 home runs and 91 RBIs in his career. Johnson was a first-team All-American as a junior and won the John Olerud Award as the best two-way player in the nation.
“There were teams that liked him as a first baseman. But it was always pretty known that he was a pitcher,” Zunino said. “You could always tell that pitching came naturally to him. Hitting was the fun part for him. He was a special player in college.”
Johnson had a rough start against Durham on May 3, allowing seven earned runs and walking five in 2⅔ innings. In the two starts since, he gave up two earned runs over 12⅔ innings and walked two.
Making the adjustment when needed was an attribute Johnson learned at Florida with Zunino catching him.
“He’s very even-keeled. That’s one of his biggest attributes,” Zunino said. “He can focus on what he has to do no matter what happens. I think that comes from playing a position in college. Mentally, he was always able to balance everything. He knows when he needs to fix something.”
Johnson does not have an overpowering fastball — he is usually around 91-92 miles per hour — but makes up for that with command of a curveball, cutter, and changeup. His breaking ball is a swing-and-miss pitch that Johnson isn’t afraid to use early in the count.
Johnson also works fast, pitches intelligently, and isn’t afraid to challenge hitters.
Zunino saw all of those qualities in weekend Southeastern Conference games, especially as Johnson got older.
“I think he will be great in the majors. He had great feel as a college pitcher for his off-speed pitches and that has improved over time,” Zunino said. “You notice the guys who have great success are the ones who know how to pitch. Having great velocity isn’t the only to have success. You like the guys who can throw different pitches for strikes and find a way to get you out with something beyond a fastball. That’s Brian.”
Johnson has a 2.29 ERA in 55 minor league starts. Zunino made the jump to the majors in 2013. Via text messages and occasional phone calls, they have encouraged each other.
When Johnson was hit in the face by a line drive in 2012 during a game while pitching for Rookie League Lowell at Fenway Park, Zunino was constantly checking on him via family and other friends.
Now they’re getting close to possibly facing each other
“We’ll be at Fenway Park in August and I hope he’s with the Sox then,” Zunino said. “Brian is getting there and he’s going to get his chance. He’s embraced everything about being with the Red Sox and he’s becoming an all-around pitcher. It’s exciting for me to see it. I’m extremely happy for him.”