BOSTON — Red Sox prospect Brian Johnson stood along the first base line Saturday at Fenway Park. The left-hander was just named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Johnson, as you’d imagine, was excited about the prestigious honor. His return to Fenway, however, was about far more than baseball hardware.
The last time Johnson had been at Fenway was a dark day in the pitcher’s career. On Aug. 18, 2012, Johnson was struck in the face by a line drive while pitching for the Lowell Spinners in the annual Futures at Fenway event. He exited on a stretcher and suffered multiple orbital bone fractures on the left side of his face.
“It’s exciting. I’m happy to be back,” Johnson said Saturday. “I’m here for positive reasons instead of negative reasons, so I’m really happy to be here.”
Johnson’s return to Fenway perhaps offered a glimpse into the future. The 23-year-old just wrapped up a very impressive season in the Red Sox farm system, ultimately making his way to Triple-A Pawtucket for one start amid the PawSox’s Governors’ Cup run. He spent the majority of his season with Double-A Portland, posting a 10-2 record and 1.75 ERA over 20 starts while solidifying himself as a viable candidate for a major league call-up as soon as 2015.
“I didn’t expect to get 158 innings in this year. My goal was like 130-ish, just because I had 89 last year,” Johnson said of his increased workload. “To be honest, I felt strong. I felt good at the end of the year. I could have kept pitching.
“It’s good to push yourself that far. I feel like unless you test the waters, you don’t really know. After throwing 89 innings last year and throwing 158 this year, I felt just as strong as ever.”
Johnson, who started 2014 with High-A Salem, was a first-round draft pick (31st overall) in 2012. The 6-foot-3 southpaw has flown under the radar, though, mostly because of the Red Sox’s other promising, young pitchers, many of whom toed a big league rubber this season.
One pitcher in a situation similar to Johnson’s — an up-and-coming hurler on the cusp of cracking the majors — also has been a source of knowledge. According to Johnson, pitching alongside Henry Owens, a lefty pegged as the organization’s top pitching prospect, has been extremely beneficial.
“I think watching Henry pitch all year got me better,” Johnson said. “I got to see him throw that changeup in counts I never even would have thought about throwing it, and I’d go out there the next day thinking, ‘I’m going to try that.’ And I was really successful.
“I’ve got to thank Henry for proving to me that throwing changeups in certain counts works. (I’m) throwing it left on left now, everything. I don’t limit myself.”
Johnson said his focus this offseason will be on sharpening each of his pitches. If the fine-tuning goes according to plan, it’s not unreasonable to think he could leapfrog other starters in the organization early next season.
“It makes spring training that much better because you know when you’re going out there and you have intrasquads, you’re facing the best of the best,” Johnson said of the Red Sox’s crowded prospect picture. “I remember my last outing of spring training versus the Triple-A team. That was half the (Red Sox’s) lineup (Friday). So it’s cool. You know how you match up.”
So far, Johnson has matched up well. It’s now Fenway or bust.