When Brian Johnson walked out to the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park on Saturday afternoon, it was a year and a week from the day he decided it was time to step away from baseball.
Johnson was beset with anxiety about his stalled career so crippling that it affected all aspects of his life. He was short-tempered with friends and family and often unable to sleep. The game he loved had become a burden.
The Red Sox placed Johnson on the temporary inactive list and had him report to the team’s spring training base in Florida for counseling.
Baseball was pushed to the side as Johnson put the pieces back together. But, in time, he picked the ball back up and eventually pitched in a dozen minor league games before the season ended.
That he did that much was an accomplishment. Then on Saturday, Johnson showed just how far he had come.
The lefthander threw a five-hit shutout, beating the Seattle Mariners, 6-0, before a sellout crowd of 36,985. It was the sixth consecutive win for the Sox.
Johnson allowed five singles, didn’t walk anyone, and struck out eight. Of his 109 pitches, 85 were strikes. In what was only his third game in the majors, the 26-year-old was brilliant. Only once did the Mariners advance a runner beyond first base.
“You always want to come up here and do well,” Johnson said. “Obviously there’s some stuff I’ve gone through in my career. It’s an awesome feeling.”
The fans cheered when Johnson came out of the dugout for the ninth inning with 100 pitches under his belt. He got caught up in the drama and had to step back off the mound to catch his breath.
The moment had the feeling of a no-hitter, perhaps because so many in the park knew Johnson’s history.
“Just really happy for him, as everyone is here given all that he’s come through,” Sox manager John Farrell said.
Johnson was aided by a series of excellent defensive plays in the outfield. Mookie Betts reached over the bullpen wall in the fourth inning to take a home run away from Nelson Cruz. Jackie Bradley Jr. went back to the wall in center to make a leaping catch off a drive off the bat of Robinson Cano in the sixth inning.
Then in the ninth, it was Bradley who sealed the game. He made a diving catch to take a hit away from Cruz for the second out then a running grab in the gap against Kyle Seager to end the game.
Last spring, Bradley was one of the Red Sox players who sent Johnson messages of encouragement. They played against each other in college and were teammates in the minors.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things, to be able to do it for a pitcher who’s been pitching special all day long,” Bradley said. “I get excited to be able to do that for B.J. It’s pretty special getting to see him accomplish this.”
When Bradley made his final grab, Johnson pumped his fist and hugged catcher Sandy Leon as his father and brother stood and cheered in the stands.
Johnson had pitched at Fenway Park only one other time, in 2012 when he was with Single A Lowell. Johnson, on the second pitch he threw, was struck in the face by a line drive and had to leave the game.
“Today I went nine innings, pretty cool,” he said. “I didn’t think about it until after the game.”
It was the first shutout for a Sox pitcher since Steven Wright last Aug. 5 and the first at Fenway for a Sox pitcher since Rich Hill in 2015.
Not since Pedro Martinez in 1998, also against Seattle, had a Red Sox pitcher thrown a shutout in his first game at Fenway.
It gets better. Johnson had not thrown a nine-inning complete game since his junior year at the University of Florida. His catcher that day, Mike Zunino, was 0 for 3 for Seattle on Saturday.
“He made pitches today. We haven’t been swinging the bat great, but he was able to keep us off balance,” said Zunino, who struck out twice.
In a cruel twist, Johnson was sent back to Triple A Pawtucket after the game. He had been called up to start because of a gap in the rotation that will close when David Price is activated off the disabled list to start Monday in Chicago.
“Take nothing away from what Brian did today,” Farrell said. “In complete command of this game. He was outstanding.”
The Sox gave Johnson run support right away. Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Leon had RBI singles off Rob Whalen in the first inning. Bradley added a two-run homer in the sixth.
In the clubhouse afterward, Johnson was surrounded by television cameras and started to sweat so much under the lights that closer Craig Kimbrel gave him a small towel.
Johnson then laughed and changed his shirt before going to find his family to celebrate.
“Unbelievable day,” he said. “Long time coming.”