Charlotte Knights

Knights pitcher Erik Johnson back on top of his game, All-Star Game starter

Charlotte Knights pitcher Erik Johnson, coming off a lackluster 2014, has bounced back in 2015 and will start Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game.
Charlotte Knights pitcher Erik Johnson, coming off a lackluster 2014, has bounced back in 2015 and will start Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Shortly after the 2014 season, Erik Johnson and his family gathered at their home in Los Altos, Calif.

Fresh off the worst season of his professional baseball career, the Charlotte Knights’ starting pitcher took a brief break from the game. But he didn’t erase the memory of the past season’s disappointment. He wouldn’t allow it.

So Johnson, 25, called his family together. They discussed how he could get back on track.

“What do you think you need to do?” they asked.

For much of the season he had asked himself that same question. He never found the answer, but he never stopped searching, either.

Wednesday, less than a year removed from that unforseen detour, Johnson will be the starting pitcher for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game.

It’s the high point of his revival this season so far, but to reach it, he needed to rediscover himself.

The drive to succeed

Holding a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the seventh, one out separated the Los Altos High Eagles from claiming the 2007 California Interscholastic Federation Central Coast Section Division II title.

With the tying runner on third base, Los Altos coach Sandy Wihtol needed to make a pitching change. He turned to Johnson.

Pitching on one day’s rest, Johnson, then a junior, struck out the final batter in his only relief appearance of the season. His RBI single proved to be the difference. Performances such as these became typical, but he never dwelled on them.

“He was never one to be walking around with his chest puffed up after he threw a shutout or did some remarkable performance when I was coaching with him,” said Wihtol, who pitched parts of three seasons for the Cleveland Indians.

“He’s the guy that win or lose, no matter how good he did, he went out to the outfield warning track and he ran his (butt) off.”

Johnson’s drive earned him a baseball scholarship to California, about an hour north of Los Altos. His success followed.

I know he expected to be drafted high, which he should’ve been because he’s a great pitcher, he was doing great and he was a very projectable guy. He had all of the stuff scouts look for.”

Former California and Charlotte baseball player Marcus Semien

As a freshman in 2009, he pushed his way into the Golden Bears’ starting rotation, and in two years he established himself as the team’s ace and as a Major League Baseball prospect. In California’s run to the 2011 College World Series, he posted a 7-4 record with a 2.83 ERA and 102 strikeouts.

Johnson’s potential resulted in the Chicago White Sox selecting him in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. But he remained focused on the road ahead.

“He was as calm as could be,” said California teammate Marcus Semien, who was also drafted by Chicago in 2011. “I know he expected to be drafted high, which he should’ve been because he’s a great pitcher, he was doing great and he was a very projectable guy. He had all of the stuff scouts look for.

“When he heard the news, he was just like, ‘Here we go. This is what it’s going to be. I’m ready to get down and go to work.”

‘The moment I knew’

After appearing in two games with Chicago’s Advanced Rookie affiliate in 2011, shoulder soreness delayed Johnson’s 2012 debut. He pitched only 921/3 innings between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem. But he quickly made up for lost time.

He opened the 2013 season with Class AA Birmingham, the first stop in a season-long tour.

Johnson’s performance earned him a June promotion to Charlotte, where his success continued. He finished the minor-league season with a 12-3 record, 1.96 ERA and 131 strikeouts between Birmingham and Charlotte.

“Every start out there, I felt like we were going to win,” said Semien, who now plays for the Oakland Athletics. “He kept it going the whole year, and he was just doing what he knows he can do. It got him to the big leagues.”

Along with Semien, Johnson made his major-league debut on Sept. 4, 2013, at Yankee Stadium in New York. Unfazed by the moment, he pitched six innings in a 6-5 loss.

He started four more games for Chicago, highlighted by three straight wins to cap his 2013 campaign. By season’s end, Baseball America named him the No. 2 prospect in the White Sox organization.

“That was the moment I knew I could pitch in the big leagues,” he said.

‘A humbling year’

No one knew exactly what happened next, or when it occurred. But when spring training opened in 2014, Johnson was a shadow of the dominating presence of a year before.

He posted a 6.35 ERA in four starts, but broke spring training as Chicago’s No. 5 starter. When his ERA sat at 6.46 after five regular-season starts, the White Sox optioned him to Charlotte.

I got away from what I do really well. I had to go back, see what I was doing well and see what changed.”

Charlotte starting pitcher Erik Johnson

There, his bouts with inconsistency and his unsuccessful search for an answer to his struggles resulted in a 5-7 record and a 6.73 ERA for the Knights. But he wouldn’t stop pushing.

“I was throwing a lot of things out there and nothing was really sticking, but that’s a part of baseball and a part of the grind,” he said. “The thought is that if you can figure this out and if you can work through this, you have so much more experience of the entire spectrum.”

Months of training followed Johnson’s meeting with his family. He knew the adjustments he needed to make wouldn’t happen instantaneously. His return to form had to be a progression.

2.73 Johnson’s ERA, tied for sixth best in the International League

99 Strikeouts for Johnson, most in the International League

1 Earned runs Johnson has allowed in his past five starts

“I got away from what I do really well,” he said. “I had to go back, see what I was doing well and see what changed. I picked up some inefficiencies that wouldn’t help me repeat, wouldn’t help me get late extension, wouldn’t help me command the zone very well. Once I kind of cut those out and continued to get back to what I do really well, kind of the brick put itself in.”

Comeback complete

Johnson is 7-5 with a 2.73 ERA and an IL-leading 99 strikeouts this season. He went 3-0 in his final five starts before the All-Star break and allowed only one earned run.

He said he wasn’t worthy of a promotion in 2014 and that the season might not have been a part of his plan. But Johnson intends to incorporate it into his hopeful return trip to Chicago, whenever it might be.

“The game will beat you down. It will humble you,” said Charlotte pitching coach Richard Dotson. “Erik had a humbling year last year, and the thing is he didn’t roll back over. He came ready this year to compete and be the guy.”

Erik Johnson found himself. Now he’s back on track.

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