You could see the anger starting to boil over for Erik Johnson in the sixth inning of Thursday’s 9-5 Charlotte Knights win over the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders when the right-hander failed to get the call on a two-strike fastball that looked to catch the inside corner of the plate.
Knights’ catcher Josh Phegley held the ball in place for a couple extra seconds, Charlotte players barked from the bench, and Johnson took a jab at the return throw from Phegley that would have made Ali look twice.
It wasn’t so much the umpiring that had Johnson on edge, as much as it was the four-run inning by the RailRiders in front of 10,255 at BB&T BallPark that he just couldn’t escape.
“That’s baseball and that’s how it goes down sometimes,” said Johnson (3-6), who had cruised through the game’s first five innings, allowing one run on two hits with five strikeouts.
“You’ve got to go with the punches and remember that you get the ball again in five days," he continued. "There are frustrating parts, but you’ve got to take away the positives and keep building and working.”
In a season that’s seemingly been a never-ending series of one step forward followed by two steps back for Johnson, whose ERA now stands at 6.80, the All-Star break was a chance to hit reset and his first five innings were exactly what he’d hoped they would be.
“You could tell I had my command and I was hitting the glove and working ahead and punching guys out,” said Johnson, whose final line read: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 5 R (4ER), 5K.
“My hits were down and there were no walks tonight," Johnson said. "It was one of the sharpest outings I’ve had. I’ve been working on a few things and I thought they all came together tonight.”
The Knights (41-58), who won for the third consecutive game, pounded out a season-high six home runs in support of Johnson, with two coming from Andy Wilkins (3-for-4) and Matt Davidson, Marcus Semien, Phegley and Jordan Danks all joining in the fun.
Davidson (1-for-4) and Wilkins are now tied atop the International League with 18 home runs each. Charlotte entered the day leading the IL in home runs (117), 32 more than second-placed Toledo (85).
“It’s a lot easier when guys all over the lineup are working the counts, getting on, and putting pressure on the pitcher,” said Davidson. “With (Wilkins and I) having the team lead, we may as well battle back and forth. If I hit one, he seems to hit one and the other way around. We’ve got a good little competition going on."
Johnson’s pitch immediately following the one in the sixth where he didn’t get the call was laced back up the middle for the RailRiders' fifth hit of the inning and led to Knights manager Joel Skinner turning the game over to the bullpen.
The inning had gotten away from Johnson, but the Knights defense had also made an error, failed to turn a double play and allowed an infield single.
“He went through the lineup and had the one inning where it seemed like we couldn’t make a play,” said Skinner of Johnson’s performance. “We expanded that inning on Erik.
“I though that the first three innings he went right through the lineup and faced the minimum,” Skinner continued. “He was just pitching tonight and that’s what we’ve seen from him in the past and that’s what he did tonight.”
You could see Johnson talking to himself as he walked off the mound, but as soon as he reached the dugout, the pats on the back began.
“That’s the sharpest I’ve seen (Johnson) all year,” said Wilkins, who is hitting .405 (17-for-42) over his last 10 games with four home runs. “He was pounding the zone and throwing strikes. He did a good job and wasn’t behind too many hitters. He just came out and attacked and it was good to see.”
Notes: Prior to the game, the Chicago White Sox announced the signing of Chien-Ming Wang and his subsequent assignment to the Charlotte Knights. Wang, who recently opted out of his contract with Cincinnati, posted an 8-5 record with a 3.70 ERA in 19 games for the Triple-A Louisville Bats (Cincinnati Reds organization) this season. He is scheduled to start on Friday. … In a separate move, the team also traded starter Dylan Axelrod to the Cincinnati organization.