The day it became all worthwhile for Brian Johnson

Rob Bradford
May 27, 2017 - 8:02 pm

Brian Johnson's career took a sharp turn for the better Saturday afternoon (Adam Glazman/Getty Images)

At 12:45 p.m., just more than three hours before he was to make his first Fenway Park start, Brian Johnson walked through Kenmore Square, up over the David Ortiz bridge, past the Cask'n Flagon and toward his workplace for the remainder of a sunny Saturday.

With backpack slung over his shoulders, nobody recognized him. A few young autograph seekers walked steps behind, but weren't sure enough that the 6-foot-3 pedestrian was anyone they could find a baseball card to be signed.

It was the same relative anonymity Johnson experienced while eating at Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Fort Myers every morning, or driving a modest SUV, only distinguished by a few Florida Gators stickers.

He would go on to the souvenir shop on Yawkey Way to buy his friend a Red Sox hat before saying one last hello to his family and friend, who had chosen the Cask to wait out the hours leading up to Johnson's big day. Still, nary an acknowledgement.

Seven hours later, everything had changed.

Johnson walked out of Fenway Park a whole lot different than he walked in. This was the proud owner of one perhaps the signature moment for the 2017 Red Sox.

What had been considered an innocuous spot start turned into a once-in-a-lifetime 2 hours and 23 minutes. Sure, Johnson may go on and have a major league start better than his complete game shutout over the Mariners Saturday. But there won't be another opportunity to put the kind of punctuation on his uncomfortable eventful professional career like this 6-0 Red Sox win supplied.

"I don't think about it like that," Johnson said about reflecting on all of his trials and tribulations over the past few years. "I just think about putting in hard work and good things will happen."

Whatever he did, it worked. He threw 109 pitches, 85 of which were strikes. The lefty finished his nine innings -- his first complete game since accomplishing the feat against Jackie Bradley Jr.'s South Carolina team in the 2011 SEC Tournament -- striking out eight and not walking a batter.

Whatever doubts lingered about how Johnson could get big league hitters out with an 88 mph fastball were extinguished, as were the memories of his previous two big league starts which he had allowed eight runs in a total of 9 1/3 innings.

That was certainly part of the equation for Johnson on this day.

But the story of this start stretched well beyond the 26-year-old's sudden burst out of anonymity and low expectations. The heart of the saga was how he got to that point of even walking over that bridge just after noon.

Hit in the face with a line-drive. Car-jacked. Season-ending elbow injury. Season-derailing anxiety issues. Loss of stuff. Getting hit in the back of the head with another batted ball. Doubts about major league viability.

All of it while collecting paychecks from the Red Sox, and all of it hovering over Johnson as potential reasons why a day like this simply wasn't going to come.

Sure, the fairy-tale seven hours did hit midnight almost immediately after finishing his postgame interview with the Red Sox radio broadcast guys. Literally one minute after taking off his headset, Johnson took his enormous grin into John Farrell's office, where the manager and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski informed the pitcher he was headed back to Triple-A Pawtucket.

Still, while Dombrowski and Farrell passed along the news, the smile never left Johnson's face.

He would continue his wave of hugs and congratulatory handshakes all the way to his locker, still not letting the post game grin leave his face.

"You know, that’s the reality of the game. Brian is aware of it. We had a chance to congratulate him and yet option him back to Pawtucket. With David Price coming here Monday, but still, take nothing away from what Brian did today," Farrell said. "Had complete command of this game. he was outstanding with first-pitch strikes. Just a great job of overall strike percentage and just really happy for him as everyone is here, given all that he’s come through and a game in complete control."

Players have their careers and then they have their unforgettable moments. For Johnson, the future can wait. This was all about the afternoon it all became worthwhile.

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