Saturday, April 18, 2015

Erik Johnson shines in Knights 6-2 win over Braves

Who is this version of Erik Johnson? And what did he do with the guy who struggled so mightily in 2014?

In his first start of 2015 with the Charlotte Knights, Johnson, held the Gwinnett Braves to one run on four hits over five innings of work, while striking out four in an eventual 6-2 Charlotte win in front of 10,527 at BB&T Ballpark.

The 25-year-old right-hander threw a remarkably efficient 63 pitches (46 strikes) over his five innings of work, never once going to a three-ball count, before heading down to the bullpen to toss 15 more pitches after being removed from the game (he was on an innings limit).

Johnson began last season as the Chicago White Sox No. 5 starter, but struggled with his fastball velocity and command before being reassigned to the Knights. From there, things only got worse for the White Sox No. 2-ranked prospect entering the season.

Johnson went on to finish 2014 with a 5-7 record with the Knights and a career-worst 6.73 earned-run average. 

But for Johnson, that's all in the past now. 

Through eight innings of work (three came in relief last Tuesday) this season, he's allowed just one run on six hits, while striking out seven.

Johnson's fastball is back to registering 92-to-95 miles-per-hour on the radar gun and he’s mixing in a sharp curveball, along with a slider and changeup. 

There’s a hop in his step and an enthusiasm in his voice that wasn’t there last season.

The Knights spotted Johnson (2-0) all the runs he would need in the first inning when Matt Davidson connected on a two-run home run off Chien-Ming Wang (0-1). For good measure, they added another run in the fourth inning and three more in the seventh to put the game away. 

The lone run off Johnson on Saturday came in the third inning. Joe Benson went the other way on a 2-0 fastball for a double to leadoff the inning and then came in to score on a seeing-eye ground-ball single between first and second. 

After a fly-out and an infield single, Johnson went to his slider and promptly got out of the inning with a double play. 

Of Johnson's four strikeouts on the night, three came on fastballs (all swinging) and one on a curveball. 

“For me, it’s all about getting as late of a launch as I can. By a late launch (I mean) how late you can hold onto the ball before you release it. It looks harder and is more explosive the longer you can hold onto it. That’s what I worked on this offseason.” – Knights’ starter Erik Johnson.

Worth mentioning
Knights’ centerfielder and White Sox No. 18 prospect (according to Baseball America) Trayce Thompson (1 for 4) extended his International-League best hitting-streak to 10 games with a single in the fourth inning. The 24-year-old is now hitting .375. … Tyler Saladino played shortstop for the Knights on Saturday after serving as the team’s designated hitter for the previous five games (he's still recovering from Tommy John Surgery just over eight months ago). … Carlos Sanchez (3 for 4, RBI, R) continued his torrid pace at the plate and is now hitting a team-high .485 over seven games since his assignment to Class AAA. … Reliever Jake Petricka (with the Knights on a rehab assignment from the White Sox) threw a scoreless inning of relief with two walks and two strikeouts. ... The crowd of 10,527 was the Knights' largest of the season and their fourth sellout. 

What's next?
The Knights (7-3) and Braves (3-7) will conclude their three-game series on Sunday at BB&T Ballpark at 2:05 p.m. Shawn Haviland (0-0, 0.00) will take the ball for Charlotte across from Braves No. 3 prospect (according to Mike Foltynewicz (0-1, 2.08).