Brian Johnson and Blake Swihart arrived at spring training in the same situation. They were former first-round draft picks who had not fulfilled their potential, largely because of injuries.
They also were out of minor league options, meaning the only avenue to stay with the Red Sox was to make the team. The alternatives were being traded or designated for assignment.
Johnson was hoping to earn a spot in the bullpen. Swihart was the third catcher on a team that needed only two. So he spent long days trying to prove he could play the outfield, first base, and even third base.
“Everything was an unknown for us, basically,” Swihart said.
Six months later, Johnson will jog out to the mound at Fenway Park on Thursday night to start the first game of a pivotal series against the second-place Yankees.
Swihart will be his catcher, the would-be utility player having shown he still belongs behind the plate.
“When you think about it, it’s kind of cool this is happening,” Johnson said. “I’ve been throwing to Blake since we were both in the minors. Now we’re going against the Yankees.”
Johnson learned on Tuesday that he would be filling in for Chris Sale, who went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. There can be no replacing the Cy Young Award favorite, but Johnson has a 1.80 earned run average in six starts this season.
Swihart has caught his last two games and they’ve been a good combination.
“B.J. has done a good job,” manager Alex Cora said. “We know where we’re at, we know where they’re at. Now we have go out there and play good baseball.”
The 75-34 Sox have a 5½-game lead on the 68-38 Yankees. There are 10 games remaining between the teams, with seven at Fenway.
Johnson has faced the Yankees three times in relief this season and pitched 4⅔ scoreless innings with one walk and five strikeouts. The Yankees are 2 of 16 against him.
The situation will not intimidate him, not after the stress he’s gone through to get to this point.
“Just go out there and do what has made me successful,” Johnson said. “It feels like I’ve been in a good rhythm, even when I’m just playing catch.”
Johnson went 5⅔ innings and threw 84 pitches against Minnesota last Thursday. With the extra rest, he feels he can work six innings and throw 100 pitches easily against the Yankees.
All the Red Sox want him to do is put them in a position to win the game. For Johnson, working out of the bullpen earlier this season has helped him focus on that task.
“I know how big strike 1 is and that you have to attack,” he said. “I’m not saving bullets, I’m going after hitters. That’s helped me with all my pitches, especially my slider.”
Johnson has averaged a modest 89.1 m.p.h. with his fastball. But he’s not afraid to challenge hitters up in the strike zone and get on top of sharply angled swings. He also has faith in his breaking pitches.
It’s not unlike the approach of Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who at age 38 has a 92-m.p.h. fastball but makes it work with a cut fastball and reliable slider.
“Brian is fun to catch,” Swihart said. “There’s a lot of options.”
That Swihart will be calling pitches is a product of both his own determination and circumstance.
Swihart did not start a game behind the plate until June 7, the Sox giving every start to either Sandy Leon or Christian Vazquez. When Vazquez broke his right pinkie on July 7, the Sox had little choice but to use Swihart to spell Leon. He has started five games since.
The Sox are 1-4 in those games with two of the losses by one run. Swihart is 12 of 31 with five extra-base hits in 10 games since Vazquez was injured. He has hit safely in all of those games.
“Offensively you see it, he’s swinging the bat the same way he did in spring training,” said Cora, who has been more liberally using Swihart off the bench in recent weeks.
The Sox do not have a catching instructor on the major league coaching staff. Special assistant Jason Varitek has helped out along with minor league instructor Chad Epperson, who has known Swihart since he was drafted.
“Blake’s done a good job working on the side and watching in the bullpen. But it gets to a point where you need to be in a game and get in that environment,” Epperson said. “He’s shown he can handle it. I like fact that he’s stayed in the right line, the game hasn’t sped up on him.”
Swihart suffered a season-ending ankle injury in 2016 that required surgery. That robbed him of the athletic ability that once made him an intriguing catching prospect.
But it’s evident those qualities have returned.
“I think he’s where he was before the injury if not ahead of that,” Epperson said. “He’s blocking balls and moving around very well. But he’s not relying on pure athleticism. He’s engaged and working through the game. It’s fun for me to sit there and watch how he’s grown.”
Still, Swihart has not necessarily earned more playing time, at least not yet.
“I think we’re playing him the right way,” Cora said. “We still like the way Sandy calls the game. But offensively we know what Blake is doing right now. You can see it’s a different player.
“There’s no more predetermined swings at 2-0 or 3-1. Now he’s looking for a pitch and when he gets it he’s putting a good swing on it . . . Little by little we feel comfortable with him. He’s blocking balls, calling the game with conviction. We’re comfortable with him.”
Two players who well could have been playing elsewhere will be right in the middle of baseball’s best rivalry on Thursday.
“It’s kind of cool we’re here,” Johnson said. “Neither of us gave up on the idea we could do this.”