LOWELL – Everything seemed so close.
The 2015 season opened with a sense of remarkable possibility for Red Sox pitching prospect Brian Johnson. He’d moved beyond the soft-tossing lefty label in 2014.
When Johnson opened 2015 with a standout performance in spring training, he sat prominently on the big league radar. Each start that spring and again with the beginning of the Triple A season represented a chance for him to show he was ready to compete at the highest level.
But that altitude came with pressure and concern, particularly as Johnson started feeling numbness trickle down his left arm to his fingers, a condition he hid from the Red Sox for months in hopes of keeping his big league opportunity on track. Though his velocity was down and his command was reduced, promising results kept coming.
“My goals became my expectations,” Johnson said Monday. “I felt like I had a microscope put on myself. If I didn’t throw perfect, I was [angry]. If I gave up one run, I was [angry]. Nothing was good enough.”
By May of this year, Johnson did what might have been unthinkable in another era: He recognized the need to step away to seek treatment for anxiety, a decision the Red Sox supported completely.
After two months in Florida, he’s now progressing back through the minors, having returned to the Single A Lowell Spinners — for whom he made his pro debut four years ago. In a sense, his place in Lowell, where he made his second start Tuesday, suggesting a sense of renewal after an exhausting two seasons.
A growing concern
The 2015 season should have represented one of considerable accomplishment for a pitcher who, three years after being drafted out of the University of Florida, made his major league debut. Instead, Johnson found it hard to turn off the faucet.
He’d wake up and think about baseball. He’d be eating — or, sometimes not eating — and think about baseball and what he could do better, or wasn’t doing well enough, to get to the big leagues. He’d zone out while watching TV and start thinking about baseball.
Initially, the admission to the team about his left forearm — which turned out to be ulnar nerve irritation, a condition that would require rest, but not surgery — offered a sense of relief. But as the offseason progressed, encouraging news at one checkup would be greeted with anxious anticipation of the next medical visit in a month.
He’d be at home with his parents and permit himself a minute or two to think about baseball, only to see that time commitment mushroom into 10 or 15 minutes. Sleeplessness became a constant.
“I never felt like I was living in the moment. I was always looking two to three steps ahead,” said Johnson. “I was waking up in cold sweats. I just never felt like myself. I had bags under my eyes. I was short-tempered. I love my parents to death, but they would reach out, I’d call them, my dad would ask how pitching was going, and I had a short fuse. Last thing you want to do is fight with your loved ones. It was becoming arguments because I didn’t want to talk about baseball and how do you tell anybody what you’re going through when you feel like baseball is the only thing you know?”
A healthy spring training in 2016 and a return to the mound for his first game action since the previous August seemed to offer a reprieve for Johnson. He saw what he described as “a light at the end of the tunnel,” feeling that he was in a good place both on and off the mound. But soon after he opened the season in Pawtucket, all of that ended.
Johnson pitched poorly in Pawtucket, puzzling evaluators. It was a dramatic departure for a pitcher with perhaps the best command in the Red Sox farm system.
The problem wasn’t the nerve near his left elbow that had led to the early end of Johnson’s 2015 campaign or the big toe injury that denied him a chance to compete for a job in spring training. Johnson’s struggles were confined largely to the first inning (in which he had a 12.86 ERA, compared with a 2.42 ERA over the rest of his outings), when he seemed unable to focus or attack opponents.
“Watching him, especially in the first inning of his starts, you could tell something was up. Something was wrong and it wasn’t a physical issue,” said longtime teammate Pat Light.
Johnson felt at times like a foreigner in his own skin, unable to carry on a normal conversation with pitching coach Bob Kipper, his thoughts tangling as he tried to explain what was happening during those outings, particularly the first inning. He struggled in his interactions with teammates as he tried to act normal and not betray the constant anxiety.
“I just felt like I was always putting on an act. I always felt tight in my shoulders. I always felt like I was putting on a show,” said Johnson. “Finally, I remember talking to [Light], and he said, ‘All baseball aside dude, you’re my best friend and you need to get right. You need to make sure you’re good.’ It was tough. I was nervous to tell my agent, I was nervous to tell my mom and dad.
“Obviously it wasn’t very easy to finally come forward,” he continued. “It wasn’t planned. It just happened to be a phone call with my dad. That’s where I kind of broke down and told him I wasn’t happy, but I was just going to keep going. That’s what the grind of baseball is. You keep going. That’s what I’d planned on doing. [But] I just finally hit a breaking point where I said I can’t live my life unhappy not just on the field but off the field. I wanted . . . I needed help.”
But to get it, Johnson would need to have another conversation, one that he dreaded even more than the one with his family.
“My biggest fear was, how will the Red Sox react?” Johnson recalled. “How do I tell them when they’re relying on me and they might need me, how do I tell them I’m not in a good place off the field?”
Relieving the burden
It came as an immense relief when Johnson finally made the decision to tell the team in May about what he was experiencing. A wave of support stretched across every level of the organization.
“This stuff can be tough to identify in a lot of cases. It’s a sensitive topic. I think it took a lot of guts for Brian to admit that, whether it be to us or publicly. It’s a little bit of uncharted territory in the sports world,” said Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen. “You’re proud of the kid for having the guts to say that. It’s on us to support him and to feel that way. We were able to attack it more directly because Brian had the guts to admit [it] to us .”
The message from the Red Sox was consistent: His personal well-being came first. Red Sox players such as David Price, Joe Kelly, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts, and so many more, reached out by phone calls or texts to give Johnson their support.
“They were unbelievably good to me. I can’t thank them enough. No matter what happens in my career, I will always look back to this moment and when I got hit in the face in 2012],” said Johnson. “To feel that support was unbelievable. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t under a microscope and I felt like I wasn’t being judged. I felt like a human being.”
A plan was formulated in concert with Dr. Richard Ginsburg (the director of the team’s behavioral health program), farm director Ben Crockett, and mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez, along with president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and Hazen. Johnson would leave Pawtucket and go to the team’s extended spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla.
On May 21, the team announced that Johnson would be placed on the temporary inactive list while seeking treatment — a once-unthinkable public acknowledgment.
“I think the landscape is certainly evolving,” Crockett said. “I don’t recall a specific instance with the Red Sox that I’m aware of here in the recent past, but those instances do appear within the game and in other sports as well. I think certainly the player or the athlete or the person needs to be involved in that type of decision to do something like that, to be public with it.”
When Johnson made his condition public, he feared a barrage of hostility in both publications and social media. Instead, he encountered a remarkable outpouring of support that reached beyond the Red Sox organization. Players from other organizations told him of their own similar struggles and others outside the game encouraged Johnson for making the right choice.
“I remember that day I was leaving Pawtucket, I think there was a line of guys out the door hugging me,” he said. “You feel like you’re on such an island. That was probably the first time, the day I left Pawtucket, that I thought, ‘Wow, I really have something special here.’ You see how much everyone cares.”
In Fort Myers, Johnson — who had begun taking medication for his anxiety — would check in regularly with a psychiatrist whom he’d started working with in Boston while also meeting a couple times a week with another Red Sox mental skills coach, Justin Su’a.
As for baseball?
“There was no timetable,” said Johnson. “It was solely, ‘Go down to Fort Myers, whatever you want to do that day, do it, and we need to get you back [feeling healthy] before we start to think about baseball.’ ”
Initially, when he got to Florida, Johnson simply slept, sometimes for 14 hours. Immediately, the fog started to dissipate.
Still, Johnson’s time in Fort Myers proceeded unevenly — some good days, and some that were darker. With the help of Su’a, he came to realize that the bad days were defined not by anything that happened around the field but instead by the absence of a life away from it.
“When you live a baseball life, you wake up late in the morning. You go straight to the field. You feel like you’re at the field 24/7,” said Johnson. “I love baseball to death. I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old. I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for it. But you can’t live and die by your performance and whether it’s good or bad.”
And so, Johnson started playing on his PS4 and going to virtually every movie he could. At the field, he approached his return incrementally. He started to throw on flat ground, then advanced to throwing a bullpen session once a week, then increased the frequency of his throwing. He started to see the joy in the game again.
“You felt that drive for the game again. I felt like myself,” said Johnson. “I’d catch myself staying to watch the [Gulf Coast League] game, having the love for the game again.”
Those who are close to Johnson sensed the lifting of the cloud. When Light had a poor outing in the big leagues this month, Johnson gave him a text of encouragement — one in which he joked around in a way that he hadn’t for some time.
“It was then that I kind of realized that Brian was back and he was back to enjoying what he does,” Light said.
After roughly four weeks in Fort Myers, Johnson felt ready to start facing hitters for live batting practice.
The difference from Pawtucket was seismic. Johnson could regulate himself on the mound, catch his breath between pitches, focus.
With that, he was ready for the next step. On July 4, he pitched in a game for the first time in 51 days. He allowed two runs on four hits in three innings while walking one and striking out four in a rookie level Gulf Coast League contest. His parents made the 200-mile cross-state drive from Cocoa Beach to see him that day, and did it again for his second GCL start on July 9 (four innings, one run, one walk, five strikeouts).
“I got a guy out. I could hear my mom yell. It felt like a travel ball game when I was a kid. I’m laughing on the mound,” said Johnson.
“When I’m done after the game, there’s only the teammates out there who have the ball duty on the left field line and the right field line, and I’d see my parents. It was a very comforting feeling. They don’t care if you had a good game or bad game. They’re just happy to see you out there having fun.”
Back to the beginning
Johnson made his pro debut in 2012 with the Lowell Spinners. He is there once again.
There are glaring markers of the passage of time between that first step in professional baseball and now. Mookie Betts, Johnson’s 2012 Spinners teammate, is now featured prominently in a mural in the home clubhouse at LeLacheur Park, an All-Star who seems a lifetime removed from the player Johnson saw making three errors at shortstop shortly after he’d been assigned to Lowell four years ago.
Despite that distance, there is something appropriate about Johnson’s return to Lowell, a reminder of his readiness to begin again the ascent up the ladder.
His ascent now has a chance to be very different from the one he followed when starting his pro career, given all that Johnson did to put himself on the brink of the big leagues over the past three years. He’s still rebuilding arm strength and stamina, still clearing the rust from his down time, but the initial signs from his three starts – three earned runs in 12 innings, 14 strikeouts, three walks – have been promising, offering reminders of why he’d been regarded so highly by the Sox.
“If this guy gets back to the way he’s capable of pitching, we know what kind of talent is there. We’re very encouraged with what we’ve seen so far and glad that he’s able to go out and do what he’s doing. We’re going to take it one step at a time,” said Hazen.
“Right now, he’s taking those steps in the New York-Penn League. After that, we’ll re-evaluate and decide what’s going to be next. There’s no expectations beyond that right now.”
For now, for Johnson and the team, there is not a need to draw a line to a future destination.
Johnson is back to enjoying life both on and off the mound. And that is enough.
“The biggest thing for me is that it’s one day at a time. I’m not looking a month ahead. If I go out there and pitch well, awesome. If I don’t, it’s one game,” said Johnson. “I haven’t thought about [getting back to the big leagues] once, to be honest with you. I was so far off from that to where it was the last thing to cross my mind, to be honest. Now, I’m honestly not even worried about it.
“If I get my name called, I know I’ll be ready this time. I know I’ll be able to help and be healthy, mentally and physically. This is the first time in a while I can honestly say that. I feel good. The biggest part of that is that I feel like I can contribute at an elite level where I left off before.”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.