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Portland pitcher Brian Johnson overcoming adversity

July 20. 2014 12:43AM
Portland Sea Dogs pitcher Brian Johnson works out under the watchful gaze of Portland pitching coach Bob Kipper, left, and teammate Henry Owens on Thursday at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. Johnson is scheduled to start today's series finale. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

BRIAN JOHNSON's first trip to Fenway Park was not an enjoyable experience.

Johnson was pitching for the New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners in 2012 when they took part in the Futures at Fenway Showcase, an annual event where two of Boston's minor league affiliates play at Fenway.Joey Rickard, the Hudson Valley Renegades' leadoff hitter, lined Johnson's second pitch up the middle and the ball struck the left side of Johnson's face. He suffered 16 orbital bone fractures, a ruptured retina, a broken nose and nerve damage.

"I didn't get knocked out," Johnson recalled. "I remember everything. I even remember getting up and trying to walk off. I think it was just adrenaline."

Johnson, who is scheduled to start for the Portland Sea Dogs when they face the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in Manchester today, was done for the rest of the 2012 season. The injuries had a lingering effect as well.

He went 2-6 with 35 walks in 85 innings during the 2013 season, when he pitched for three teams: Boston's Rookie League team in the Gulf Coast League; Class A Greenville and High-A Salem. He also missed five weeks during the 2013 season because of shoulder tendinitis.

"The biggest thing was not working out," he said. "I didn't get to work out basically the whole offseason because they didn't want my heart rate to get too high. It was more mental after that.

"The injuries still played a factor (in 2013). Maybe not my face, but mentally. My first couple games it was go out there and don't get hit again - that was my mindset. It wasn't go out there and try to get a 'W' for my team. It was go out there and just don't get hit by a ball."

"That experience was humbling. Just like that everything can be taken away from you."

Johnson's first appearance during spring training last season was an interesting one. The hitter he faced? Rickard.

"I think he got a hit, to be honest," Johnson said. "I didn't even realize it was him. I just remember flinching really bad. At that point in time, if I didn't know where the ball went, I put my head down and my glove up. I'm pretty sure it was a single between short and third, because I remember (shortstop) Deven Marrero bringing the ball in and talking to me.''

Johnson said the conversation went something like this:

Marrero: "It's over with."

Johnson: "What do you mean?"

Marrero: "That was the same kid."

Johnson, who throws left-handed, said it was several starts with Greenville last season before he felt comfortable on the mound again.

"The best thing for it is to get out there and keep pitching," he said. "I pitched one inning in my first appearance (in spring training last year), but it felt like a complete game. I didn't sleep much the night before. It was a huge weight off my shoulders."

The Red Sox selected Johnson out of the University of Florida with the 31st pick (the team's second first-round pick that year) of the 2012 draft. He was obtained with the selection the Red Sox received when Philadelphia signed free agent closer Jonathan Paplebon.

Johnson, 23, went 22-12 with a 3.85 ERA at Florida, where he also played first base. He won the John Olerud Award as the nation's top two-way player in 2012.

According to soxprospects. com, Johnson is Boston's ninth-best minor league prospect. He enters today's game with an 8-2 record and a 2.54 ERA in 13 starts since being called up to Portland.Johnson held the Fisher Cats to three hits in a seven-inning complete game when Portland posted a 5-2 triumph last weekend. He has surrendered two earned runs or fewer in all but one of his starts with the Sea Dogs. "In college I was never a full-time pitcher," Johnson said. "I'd pitch and then the next day go to first. I feel like I'm settling in and becoming who I want to be. It's all a learning process."

Johnson said he's eager to make his next appearance at Fenway.

"I can't wait for that day to come," he said.

Kevin McGowan, a right-handed pitcher from Nashua, is 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA since he was promoted from Class-A Savannah, the New York Mets' affiliate in the South Atlantic League, to High-A St. Lucie of the Florida State League on June 19.

McGowan, who attended Nashua North before moving on to Franklin Pierce University, is 6-3 with a 2.14 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) this season. The Mets selected McGowan, 22, in the 13th round of the 2013 draft (pick 386 overall).

Mike Yastrzemski went 4 for 5 with a triple and scored twice in his Double-A debut with the Bowie Baysox on Thursday night. Bowie, Baltimore's affiliate in the Eastern League, is not scheduled to play the Fisher Cats again during the regular season.

Yastrzemski, 23, is primarily a center fielder. His grandfather, Carl Yastrzemski, spent his 23-year major league career with the Boston Red Sox and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Franklin's Derrick Sylvester is 0-1 with a 2.00 ERA in five games with the Arizona (Rookie) League Dodgers. Sylvester, who played for Southern New Hampshire University, has pitched nine innings, all in relief.

Sylvester went 9-2 with a 2.59 ERA in his senior season at SNHU. The Dodgers picked him in the 31st round (939 overall) of this year's draft.

Roger Brown covers baseball for the Sunday News and Union Leader. Email him at

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