The path was clear for Brian Johnson to assert himself. Then came the road block.
Now, Johnson is stuck in traffic, hoping to soon navigate his way down a clearer avenue with the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox used the final two months of the 2015 season to evaluate players they thought could help them in 2016. Johnson was noticeably absent from the mix after his major league debut July 21 because a mysterious elbow issue cropped up and forced the organization to shut down the left-hander.
“I guess the gist of it was nerve stuff,” Johnson said Saturday at the Red Sox’s Baseball Winter Weekend event at Foxwoods Resort Casino. “And that was the hardest thing because a ton of people have had like flexor strains or muscle pulls or UCL stuff, and you have a timeline. But with a nerve, there was no timeline. Nerves are tricky. That was the biggest thing I got out of it. It was a nerve issue.”
Johnson admits he still doesn’t know every single detail about the injury that cut short his 2015 campaign. And frankly, he doesn’t seem too concerned. The 25-year-old threw off a mound last week and plans to enter spring training without any restrictions. It’s back to work. Business as usual.
But there was a time last season when Johnson was a bit more worried. He dealt with sporadic numbness in his left hand — it was noticeable but not painful, according to the pitcher — and he really wasn’t sure the severity of the situation. Johnson kept pitching until it became more of an issue, at which point the Red Sox shut him down in early August.
“It’s probably my fault for not saying anything,” said Johnson, who added that he’s unable to pinpoint when exactly the discomfort began. “But I also think that’s part of growing up and going through it and knowing when to say something and when not to say something. It worked out the way it worked out.”
Johnson’s injury deprived him of a golden opportunity, as he figured to join fellow left-handed pitching prospects Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens in competing for a spot in the Red Sox’s 2016 rotation. The absence was a tough pill for Johnson to swallow, especially when he watched from home on TV and saw a bunch of his former minor league teammates making an impact with the big club in Boston.
“I was probably going to have my opportunity there and it was probably the worst timing possible for (my injury),” Johnson said, adding that it still was cool to see his friends thrive with the Sox down the stretch. “For me, it was tough to deal with for a little bit knowing that was my chance. But everything happens for a reason, and everyone kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got to think long-term here. You can go out there and keep pitching but then who knows what happens?’”
Fortunately for Johnson, last season’s scare seems to be behind him. He’s currently working on getting back to the basics in the hopes of picking up where he left off before landing on the shelf.
It could take time for Johnson to work his way back into the Red Sox’s major league plans this season based on the rotation depth ahead of him — depth that includes both Rodriguez and Owens — but he’s still very much on the radar.
“You never know what can happen. That’s the way I look at it. Crazier things have happened for certain situations to play out,” said Johnson, who thinks the learning experience might even make him a better pitcher moving forward. “So for me, it’s just going out there and doing what I can do.”
Johnson was forced to seek an alternate route. The destination hasn’t changed.
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images