GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Erik Johnson has always been a battler. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound power righty started his first big league spring training game for the Chicago White Sox on Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he did it without his best stuff.
When Johnson is on, he has an explosive fastball and a devastating slider, made all the more effective by what he calls a ground-up rebuild of his motion that he underwent after being drafted by the Pale Hose in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
But, on Sunday, his fastball didn’t pop and he didn’t have much command of his secondary pitches. All he had was his guts.
“He was good. I think he had some moments there, where he battled through it,” said manager Robin Ventura. “I don’t think it was his best stuff, but you’re impressed with him being able to get through it and get out of some jams.”
Getting out of jams and working with his back to the wall is something Johnson excels at. Before he started against eventual first-overall pick Gerrit Cole on Friday, May 20, 2011, as his California Golden Bears battled not only elimination as a program, but the grind of the Pac-10 home stretch, Johnson’s head coach David Esquer flat out told him that Cole was better than him. Johnson didn’t know what to say, until Esquer -- a plucky shortstop on Stanford’s 1987 College World Series championship team -- added, “Now shove it up his ass.”
And shove he did, shutting out a powerful UCLA lineup to the tune of seven strikeouts and just two hits allowed over 7.0 innings, en route to a 4-0 win in front of a forest of radar guns dotting the stands in Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles.
On Sunday, he faced a very different L.A. lineup, including established big leaguers Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez.
After allowing a leadoff single to Mark Ellis in the top of the first, Johnson struck out Ramirez on four pitches, and then got Gonzalez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning, needing just 13 pitches to retire the side.
“I was feeling good,” said Johnson. “I was just pounding the zone, trying to attack the hitters and keep the ball down.”
After surrendering a single to left to Ethier to lead off the top of the second, Johnson got third baseman Luis Cruz to pop out weakly to shallow left, saw his catcher Hector Gimenez gun down Ethier trying to steal second on a called strike, and then induced a fly out to center off the bat of center fielder Alex Castellanos.
“They’re out there battling,” Ventura said of his pitching staff, which has now allowed just two runs in 18 innings of work. “They’ve been in some tough spots, and they get the groundball double play. You don’t always have to strike everybody out. You let the defense work and it’s been nice to see the kids go out there, even though they might not have their best control, you get [Scott] Snodgress who battles back and gets out of it. It’s nice to see the tenacity of those guys getting through jams.”
For Johnson, it was just business as usual.
“I could have done a lot better, getting the first guy out in each inning, working ahead in the count,” said Johnson, who surrendered a double to Tim Federowicz to lead off the top of the third, and then walked left fielder Jeremy Moore.
Johnson then battled top Dodgers prospect Yasiel Puig, getting behind the big Cuban, 3-0, before getting a called strike on the corner and seeing the 22-year old Puig foul off four straight pitches, before Johnson dialed up the high heat to get the right-handed designated hitter swinging.
After Ellis popped out to third with the infield fly rule in effect, Ramirez got the better of Johnson, rattling a 1-2 single to center to score Federowicz, before being erased, 8-3-4, to end the threat.
“Overall, it was a good opportunity to get out there and face some big league hitters,” Johnson said.
Just 20 months ago, Johnson and fellow Cal alum and White Sox big league camp invitee Marcus Semien were drafted by Chicago following a miracle run to the College World Series, and even then, Johnson knew that he could make rapid progress through the minors. While he likely won’t break camp with the big club, he may make quite the case to hang around a while and get just a few more big league hitters out.
“It was my goal to be here, in this locker room,” said Johnson. “It’s just the next step, climbing up the ladder. It’s just one foot in front of the other. It’s a great opportunity. A lot of these guys in here make all the younger guys -- whether it be Marcus or me or Snodgress or whatever -- they make us feel welcome. It’s a good atmosphere here, and I enjoy it and I’m having fun and I’m learning a lot, which is the biggest part. Every day, whether it be with [pitching coach Don Cooper] or with another pitching coach. I’m learning something new every day.”
Of course, it wasn’t too long ago that Semien and Johnson were contending against Snodgress in the weekly grind of the then-Pac-10 baseball season. In a serendipitous twist, Semien made a highlight-reel grab on a liner to second to get Snodgress out of a two-on, two-out jam in the top of the fifth.
Snodgress -- who tossed 1.0 scoreless inning with two walks and one strikeout -- pitched immediately after his former rival.
“It’s fun,” Johnson said. “I play catch with Scott every day. He’s a great guy. The coolest part is just being out on the field with so many talented guys, and really just soaking it all up and learning as much as we can, just getting after it every day and picking everyone’s brain, trying to learn as much as I can.”
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.