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May 15, 2015 at 2:30 PM

Brian Johnson ignores the noise, dominates in Pawtucket

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- In a week that saw speculation that he could be named the starter for Boston’s game in Seattle on Sunday, Brian Johnson turned in one of the finest performances of his season Thursday evening in Pawtucket.

Despite the potentially distracting hubbub surrounding his candidacy to replace Justin Masterson in the Red Sox rotation, Johnson seemed genuinely unaware, a likely boon as he struck out eight Columbus Clippers (CLE) over 6 2/3 innings, allowing no walks and five hits.

“I haven't even noticed it to be honest with you. I just stay off that stuff,” Johnson said following the game. “I'm worried about every five days, and day two for my bullpen to get good preparation in before that.”

“Outstanding,” was how PawSox manager Kevin Boles summed up Thursday's performance. “[He had] fastball command. He could really spin a breaking ball tonight. I thought the breaking ball was an above-average pitch for him. The changeup was a weapon — he slowed his arm down a couple times, but he was able to recover. I'll tell you what, he really had them off balance tonight.”

“It was probably one of the best outings of the year for me, especially fastball command-wise,” Johnson said.

The only blemish on the outing was a two-out solo home run in the third inning by Michael Martinez, a light-hitting utility player but a veteran of four major league seasons. That was followed by a hard groundball by top prospect Francisco Lindor right past Johnson that went up the middle, but he finished the inning with a strikeout on a curveball and settled in to retire the next five batters in a row, three by way of the strikeout.

Johnson felt the home run was a product of throwing the fastball too often early in the game. He said he was trying to establish it the first time through the order, but went to the well one too many times.

“I think I learned my lesson throwing too many (fastballs) on the first-pitch home run, but after that I started mixing really well with [catcher Matt] Spring. He called a great game, I think I shook off pitch-wise just once,” Johnson said. “That was the biggest thing that helped me last year, just putting the other team in swing mode and getting them really aggressive with the fastball, then throwing the curveball, cutter, and changeup early in the count (as the game progresses), you’re going to get early swing-and-misses, bad contact.”

“[He got] a little bit out of sync, but he recovered, and I think the way Spring handled him, I thought that was huge. They were consistently working well together, and had good communication. Brian Johnson’s a sharp guy. He’s going to figure some things out on the fly there,” Boles said.

Johnson’s curveball and changeup were particularly effective in this outing. He said the changeup was the best it has been for him all year, and the results spoke for themselves with the curve. Five of his eight strikeouts came on his 70-75 mph curveball, four swinging and one looking. He said it was the most he has used the curve in an outing this season.

“Early in the count, I slow it up because I know I can put it where I want it -- if a guy sees a big curveball, he usually takes,” the 2012 first-round pick explained. “So later in the count, I try to throw it harder, down in the zone. I happened to hang some in the zone later in the count, but it worked.”

In this outing, hanging some in the zone, as he said, worked well for swing-and-misses. He would have liked to get those down and out of the zone later in the counts, but it was still effective.

“He's had some outings where it's been a plus pitch for him, but tonight he was able to spin it, get ahead with it early in the count, and also able to use it to finish. He locked up some hitters with it,” Boles said.

Johnson refers to his fourth pitch as a cutter, although most scouts have labeled it a slider. He mixed it in regularly in the latter innings of the outing. After the game, he explained why he likes to think of it as a cutter.

“Typically, I call it a cutter, just mentally so I can throw it off my fastball,” the 6-foot-3 right-hander said. “Early in the count, it’s slower, more like a slider, then I throw it later in counts more like a cutter, harder.”

This start marked his second strong outing in a row, after two in which he atypically walked five batters each time – he was able to work around the free passes the first time, but gave up seven earned runs in the latter. He noted that he was able to identify mechanical problems in those two starts and correct them in the last two.

“I think just staying in my mechanics and not thinking too much, just try to stay sideways longer,” he said on his adjustments. “I think for me, it was kind of trying to do too much too early, and not really get back and really pulling off my front side.”

Both Johnson and Boles agreed that this outing was step up from even his last time out. If he continues to put up results like Thursday’s, he will only be mentioned more often as a potential fix for the struggling Boston rotation. He is not letting the pressure get to him though, and is concentrating on keeping Pawtucket’s momentum going.

“Honestly, we’re not really worried about when we’re going up,” he said about the talented group of PawSox starters. “If we can just keep things rolling down here, it’s going to take care of itself. If Eduardo [Rodriguez] did well yesterday, I want to go out and do well today. It’s just like hitting, one guy gets a hit and it’s contagious.”

Photo credit: Brian Johnson by Kelly O'Connor

Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP.