Happy first step back for Johnson

Left-hander's elbow feels fine after return to game action

March 2nd, 2016
Brian Johnson will likely start this season at Triple-A, but he hopes to get another callup this year. (Getty Images)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Brian Johnson felt so good coming off the mound with a healthy left arm that he needed someone to hug. As he got to the Red Sox dugout following 1 2/3 innings in a 7-4 loss to the Twins on Wednesday, the lefty spotted a familiar face in the dugout.

"I think I came off the mound and hugged our Triple-A pitching coach, Bob Kipper," said Johnson. "I said, 'I felt like myself again.' He just said, 'It looked like night and day the last time I saw you to this time.' It looked like myself."

The last time Johnson pitched in a competitive environment, he felt nothing like himself. In fact, he now admits that he pitched hurt for a full month not knowing quite what was wrong.

"I would just go out there and if I couldn't find it, I would just throw one pitch I knew I had that day until I found it," Johnson said.

Spring:Tickets | Ballpark | 40-man roster | NRIs

Knowing he was on the cusp of making his Major League debut, Johnson simply didn't feel it was the right time to complain about the lack of firepower in his elbow.

"I guess looking back at that situation at that point in my career, I had an idea I was going to get called up soon," Johnson said. "You dream about it as a kid. You want to pitch in the big leagues. I wasn't going to let an injury stop me from doing that."

The call did come right after the All-Star break and Johnson battled his way through 4 1/3 innings in Houston, giving up three hits, four runs and four walks while taking the loss.

Quietly, Red Sox manager John Farrell wondered what happened to the velocity he had seen from Johnson in Spring Training a few months earlier.

"He had an impressive Spring Training, from action in his secondary stuff to crispness in his secondary stuff. His outings here in camp he was 91-93 [mph]," Farrell said. "In that game in Houston when you're seeing a guy that is four to five mph off that, it makes you wonder what's going on here. It was a valuable lesson for Brian. Sure, you want to bite your tongue, you want to get to the big leagues, but you're not doing yourself or the team any good if you're [not healthy]."

Johnson was sent back to Triple-A the next day and faked his way through two more starts before finally telling the organization that he was hurt.

The injury was nerve irritation in the elbow. Johnson went on a diet of rest and rehabilitation and didn't pitch again in a game until Wednesday, when he piggybacked Henry Owens and allowed two hits and two runs while getting a couple of strikeouts.

For one day, the results didn't matter so much as just being able to be out there.

"After this outing, knowing that everything felt good, and I threw well, yeah, I think that last hurdle was the last check box I had for myself," the 25-year-old Johnson said.

It's all but certain Johnson will start the season in Triple-A. But he could have his chance to emerge for the Red Sox this year. He will spend these weeks of Spring Training trying to emphasize that point.

"Just the fact of getting Brian Johnson to the mound is a first major step, coming back from the forearm injury of a year ago," Farrell said after Wednesday's game. "I think for any guy coming back from injury, that first appearance is always kind of a marker in a calendar of rehab."