There was a time when Brian Johnson, the newest Portland Sea Dogs pitcher, would sit back and savor his gourmet meal.
Macaroni and cheese.
It was the only food Johnson could eat besides liquids. The small noodles were sliced in half, and he could insert one piece at a time into his fractured face.
“It took me about an hour to eat a cup of mac and cheese,” Johnson said. “But it was worth it.”
Johnson was 21 that summer in 2012, a left-handed pitcher in his first pro season with the Boston Red Sox. In Johnson’s fourth start for the Lowell Spinners, in a special game at Fenway Park, a line drive slammed into his face. He collapsed on the mound, bloodied and well aware he was in trouble.
“I didn’t lose consciousness. I had my vision. I remember everything,” Johnson said.
The diagnosis included a broken nose and 16 fractures in his face, around his eyes and nose.
“No surgery and I didn’t have my mouth wired shut,” he said. “But I couldn’t eat for six weeks.”
Except for that appetizing mac and cheese.
But Johnson’s challenges went beyond his face healing. How would this affect his pitching?
“Not so much physically but mentally,” he said.
Johnson is one of the top Red Sox pitching prospects – and that does seem to be a long list these days – a first-round draft pick (31st overall) out of the University of Florida. He was Boston’s second pick of the draft (after shortstop Deven Marrero), a selection the Red Sox acquired for losing Jonathan Papelbon to free agency.
Boston gave Johnson a $1.5 million signing bonus and sent him to the rookie league Lowell Spinners. In August 2012, Lowell played a “Futures at Fenway” game in Boston. On Johnson’s second pitch, a line drive leveled him.
This was not the first time Johnson was hit in the head by a baseball. When pitching for Florida, his catcher beaned him while throwing down to second base. Johnson was knocked out with that one.
Johnson recovered from the Fenway incident and by spring training 2013, he had healed, “healthy and ready to go.”
But then it came time to step on a mound and face a batter, and Johnson also had to face the fear.
“I hadn’t really thought about it too much, but then that first time back on the mound, I felt like I was on the biggest stage of my life and it was just (batting practice) in spring training,” Johnson said.
“My heart was racing. I tried to take a deep breath and relax. That’s all I could do.”
Johnson settled in at low Class A Greenville last year.
“The biggest battle for me that first month or two was trying to go out and compete,” he said. “I had to have the mentality to go out there and get a win for the team instead of thinking about getting hit in the face.
“My first thought out there that first month was ‘don’t get hit again.’ ”
Johnson missed seven weeks with shoulder tendinitis but finished strong and was promoted to Salem for two starts (1-0, 1.64 ERA).
In spring training two months ago, Johnson was on the Portland squad until the final cut, when he was sent back to Salem.
“Disappointed isn’t the right word. I took it as a challenge,” he said.
“(Salem pitching coach) Kevin Walker and I worked on little mechanical stuff. Little pieces here and there, pitching inside and opening up the outer half of the plate with my off-speed and my fastball away.”
Johnson throws a fastball that averages around 90, along with a cutter, curve and change-up.
In his fourth start in Salem, Johnson threw six perfect innings before coming out. After his fifth start, he was promoted to Portland.
Johnson won his first Sea Dogs start last week in Binghamton, allowing no earned runs in 5 1/3 innings.
On Friday night, Johnson ran his record to 2-0, allowing two runs on six hits over six innings. He struck out eight, six of them looking. He threw 88 pitches, 59 for strikes.
“You’ve got a guy who pitches aggressively and attacks the strike zone,” Sea Dogs pitching coach Bob Kipper said. “His fastball is deceptive. He put himself in the position where he could almost throw any pitch he wanted in any count.”
Johnson was not afraid to throw strikes.
He was not afraid, period.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: