Resilient lefty Johnson in mix to rejoin roster

July 12th, 2020

BOSTON -- When was taken off the 40-man roster in November, he never felt more out of the mix with the Red Sox, the team that took him with a first-round selection in the 2012 Draft.

But after Johnson took the mound for Sunday’s intrasquad game at Fenway Park and threw three solid innings, he seems as in the mix as ever.

With Eduardo Rodriguez unlikely for the start of the season due to testing positive for COVID-19, the Red Sox have only three starters set for the rotation in Nathan Eovaldi, Martín Pérez and Ryan Weber.

The fifth spot is likely going to be an opener. Does manager Ron Roenicke think Johnson is in play for the fourth spot?

“Yes, I do,” Roenicke said. “We all do. Hopefully he continues [to progress]. We can build him up and then see where we are at the end.”

Sometimes you just have to ride out the twists and turns in baseball, and Johnson has already had his share.

Shortly after Johnson was drafted 31st overall by the Sox, he took a line drive to the face the first time he ever pitched at Fenway Park in a Minor League game. Shortly after his Major League debut in 2015, Johnson developed an elbow injury that derailed his momentum. In ‘16, he had to take a leave from baseball due to anxiety and depression.

A year later, Johnson was back at Fenway, throwing a five-hit shutout against the Mariners.

Through it all, Johnson has proven to be resilient. The 29-year-old lefty was sharp on Sunday, throwing 24 of 38 pitches for strikes.

“I feel great right now,” he said.

Looking back to November, Johnson admits it was a cold feeling to be taken off the roster.

“I would be lying if I said no,” he said. “It kind of gives you that chip on the shoulder, a little bit of extra motivation. Stuff like that. I don’t think there is ever a time when you’re in the Majors you get complacent. But having that happen lit a fire and showed I needed to prove something.”

These days, opportunity is knocking loudly on Boston’s pitching staff, and Johnson -- a non-roster invitee in Summer Camp -- just might seize it.

Even if he doesn’t land a rotation spot, there are bullpen spots open as well. Lefty relievers Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez also are recovering from COVID-19, leaving the Sox short on lefty arms in the ‘pen.

The 60-game season starts July 24, and Johnson would love to be part of the 30-man roster.

Last year was not good in any way for Johnson. He dealt with a left elbow issue in April that put him on the injured list on the first road trip of the season, then was shut down again and struggled with a baseball injury and one non-baseball medical issue that shelved him again in late June.

If the downtime wasn’t enough, Johnson didn’t pitch well when he was on the roster, going 1-3 with a 6.02 ERA in 21 appearances, seven of them starts.

Two years ago, Johnson was an instrumental piece for a World Series champion, making 13 starts and 25 relief appearances while recording a 4.17 ERA.

“Look, ’18 was a great year. ’19 wasn’t so much,” he said. “I got hurt the second series of the year, and then I had other stuff happen during the year where I had to miss some time. Basing [the removal from the roster] off of 2019 that wasn’t really me at times. … So I get it, my numbers weren’t good in 2019, so I get why someone would get taken off the roster, but I wasn’t expecting it, no.”

All that is in the past. On Sunday, Johnson looked like a guy who could still have a future in Boston.

“Good stuff today, good location, mixed up his fastball well up and down,” Roenicke said. “I think when he was good two years ago we saw a lot of high fastballs that he really hit that spot well. And he mixed in a lot of changeups today, had a real nice changeup. It’s hard to say this early what the difference is between this year and last year, but we really liked the way he threw the ball today.”