Wednesday, June 28, 2017
After that three year stretch, the University of Nebraska alum struggled to stay in MLB, putting in stints with Tampa Bay, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore, Toronto and St. Louis over the next eight summers, last appearing in 2015 with the Cardinals. Johnson was also a respected slugger over his 15 seasons in minor league ball, batting .280 with 254 homers and 944 RBIs while being selected to four postseason All-Star Teams. He was voted MVP for the Pacific Coast League in 2004 and received similar honors in the International League in 2010.
However, by last summer, Johnson was 36 years old and mostly out of organized baseball. While he put in seven games for the Dodgers' Tulsa affiliate in the AA Texas League, he split the rest of the season between independent teams in the Atlantic League (Bridgeport and Long Island) and American Association (St. Paul), hitting a combined .236 with 13 homers in indy ball. It was at this time that the right-handed Johnson was reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher. Johnson put in four relief appearances with Tulsa and started 11 times in 12 mound appearances with Bridgeport (0-2 with a 7.50 ERA) and St. Paul (4-2/4.50) while not playing first.
This year has been Johnson's first south of the border after he was signed as a free agent by Puebla on May 15 to shore up one of many holes left when Pericos owner shifted most starters from the 2016 Mexican League champions to his Monclova franchise in the offseason, including first baseman Daric Barton. Johnson has since provided the Parrots some stability at the initial hassock, hitting .290 with five homers and 19 RBIs over 30 games, but it was Puebla's game last Saturday at Durango where he really raised eyebrows.
Facing a Generales lineup featuring four .300 hitters, including All-Stars Daniel Mayora (he of the 35-game hitting streak) and Yadir Drake (he of the LMB-leading .385 batting average), Johnson was handed the game ball by manager Tim Johnson and proceded to pitch five innings of near-perfect ball, with Drake the sole Durango batter to reach first base after being plunked by a Johnson pitch in the fifth after the ex-MLBer had retired the first 13 batsmen he faced. While knuckleballers usually deal with a relatively high ratio of walks as one of the hazards of throwing such a pitch, Johnson gave up no bases on balls while throwing 36 of 57 pitches for strikes. Although he recorded no strikeouts, Johnson induced eight groundouts, four popups and three flyouts for his 15 outs.
It's a good thing he was lights-out on the mound, as his Puebla teammates were no more successful scoring against Generales hurler Francisley Bueno, a Cuban expat who himself spent parts of four season in MLB pitching for Atlanta and Kansas City. Bueno gave up seven hits over his five-inning stint but the game was scoreless going into the sixth, when the Pericos exploded for eight runs (including catcher Cesar Tapia's 100th career homer, a three-run bomb) off Durango relievers Erubiel Gonzalez and Sergio Sierra. Puebla went on to post a 12-2 win, with Johnson getting credit for the victory in front of 5,470 fans at Estadio Francisco Villa.
Johnson had been tinkering with the knuckler since he was a kid growing up in Minnesota before floating them in earnest playing indy ball in 2016. Last year, he told Marc Tomkin of the Tampa Bay Times during training camp (where he was trying out as a pitcher), "It's not the first time I've tried this out, but this is the first time I feel like I can take it seriously. This is the time. I'm 36 and ready to go on this."
The Durango Generales and Tim Johnson are probably taking him seriously, too.