When you watch Brian Johnson pitch, I think it’s fair to say that you generally aren’t blown away by what you see. If the lefty really reaches back, he can hit 90 mph with his fastball. He also mixes in a good curveball, but not one that will “wow” you every time. There’s also a changeup here and there. No, if Johnson is going to succeed at the highest level, it will be because of his command. He needs to work on the edges of the strike zone or risk being crushed in each and every outing. On Saturday, he had his command working and then some.
Really, it was a relatively quick and easy outing for Johnson, which fits well with his stuff. In the first, it didn’t really look like it would be. He only allowed one hit, but it came on a well-hit liner into right field and two of the outs were also hit fairly squarely. With the lefty-killing Nelson Cruz coming up with two outs, it kind of felt like damage was right around the corner. Instead, Johnson got him to swing through an 89 mph fastball up in the zone.
From there, it got smoother. He struck out two more in a 1-2-3 second and the only hit he allowed in the third was a little swinging bunt that was placed perfectly by the speedy Jarrod Dyson. He’d get another 1-2-3 in the fourth, although it did include a possible home run ball that was caught by Mookie Betts right in front of the right field wall.
The most trouble for Johnson came in the fifth, and even that wasn’t all that bad. After a quick first out, Guillermo Heredia singled on a weak line drive and was moved to third on a bloop single from Dyson. After the latter stole second, Johnson had two runners in scoring position with two outs and the leadoff hitter Jean Segura coming up. The southpaw induced a routine flyout to end the inning unscathed. He’d come back for the sixth for a quick 1-2-3 inning that included yet another strikeout of Nelson Cruz.
From there, he just kept throwing strikes and daring the Mariner to make solid contact. They didn’t do much of that, and they didn’t give up a run. He’d allow one single in the seventh before a 1-2-3 eighth that left him at exactly 100 pitches heading into the ninth. John Farrell opted to give the young starter a chance at a complete game shutout, and it was the right call. Thanks to some masterful defense in center field, Johnson got yet another 1-2-3 inning to finish off the complete game shutout. A hell of a start for a pitcher who certainly deserves it after all he’s been through.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the Red Sox simply don’t have room in their rotation for him to stick around after this impressive outing. David Price is returning to the hill on Monday, meaning that this was always a one-start deal. Perhaps that lack of pressure helped the lefty succeed to the level he did. Either way, he has certainly set himself up as the top depth option in the organization for if/when another starting pitcher needs to miss a start or starts.
Another probable reason for Johnson’s success was that he was handed an early lead. The Mariners had a spot starter of their own in Rob Whalen taking the hill on Saturday, and the Red Sox beat him up in the first inning. Or, rather, he beat himself up and the Red Sox went along for the ride. They ended up sending all nine batters to the plate while hitting two singles, drawing two walks and getting hit by two pitches en route to three runs. Obviously a three-run inning is always a good thing, but it honestly should have been more as two of the Red Sox three outs were on the base paths. One came when Dustin Pedroia slid over third base and the other came when Hanley Ramirez ran through a stop sign and got tossed out at home. It gave the Red Sox a big enough lead to win, but it’s not encouraging to see them beat themselves so often on the bases. There are some really good baserunners on this team, but there are a few that should probably reign it in a bit.
I thought Whalen would be done after that disaster of an inning, but the Mariners sent him back out for the second and in hindsight it was the right call. By a combination of poor hitting, good pitching and bad luck (or good, depending on your perspective), the Red Sox failed to make much noise over the next four innings. Heading into the sixth, they had just two more singles to add to their big first inning.
Then, with Whalen still on the mound in the sixth and the score still 3-0, Mitch Moreland hit a single to put a runner on for Jackie Bradley. The center fielder put the Red Sox back on the board again with a big home run to right-center field, extending the lead to five. The dinger came on a fastball away, and when Bradley is doing damage on those pitches you know things are going well for him.
The offense did what it needed to, but this one was all about Johnson. It’s a shame he has to follow up such an amazing start with a trip down to Pawtucket, but he’ll get another chance soon enough. As long as he keeps up this kind of command, he has nothing to worry about. The Red Sox have now won six in a row while also seemingly solving their pressing rotation depth question marks. Pretty decent Saturday.