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Pirates minor league notebook: Independent ball revives pitcher Johnson's career

| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Indianapolis Indians pitcher Kris Johnson leads the International League with a 2.52 ERA.
Indianapolis Indians pitcher Kris Johnson leads the International League with a 2.52 ERA.

INDIANAPOLIS — Kris Johnson knows exactly when he revived his professional career, even though he's not quite sure how it happened.

But considering his performance this season with the Indianapolis Indians, that's just fine with the Triple-A All-Star.

Johnson was a first-round selection by Boston in the 2006 draft out of Wichita State. After a couple of solid seasons in the Red Sox organization, things fell apart for Johnson.

He went 11-31 from 2009-11, with an ERA no better than 4.88 and as high as 12.63. The Red Sox released Johnson early in the 2011 season, leaving him looking for another opportunity, with few interested.

Johnson went home to Kansas City, Mo., to find his next organization, but it wasn't with the major league Royals. Rather it was the independent league T-Bones.

“It was a big blow when I got released,” Johnson said, “but I wasn't having fun because of the way I was performing. It took something in independent ball … something just started clicking again.”

Playing for the T-Bones was low pressure, Johnson said, since he didn't have to worry about being demoted or promoted, instead focusing on having fun and pitching relaxed.

It probably didn't hurt Johnson to be back in his hometown, where he threw five no-hitters over four years at Blue Springs High School. Living at home with his mother provided a sense of comfort, along with seeing her in the stands for each home game.

“Something clicked when I was down in independent baseball,” Johnson said. “I don't know if it was a mechanical thing or just a mental aspect of finding that enjoyment in baseball again, but since then something has clicked. I just can't quite explain it.”

In 16 starts with the T-Bones, Johnson went 6-3 with a 3.23 ERA, ranking first all-time in the organization's 18-year history.

Johnson parlayed that performance into a free-agent contract with the Pirates prior to the 2012 season. He split time last season with Altoona and Indy as a reliever and starter, going 8-4 with a 3.19 ERA.

“I could see some flashes of what he is capable of doing and this year there hasn't been anybody better than Kris Johnson,” said Indy catcher Tony Sanchez, a fellow Triple-A All-Star.

Primarily used as a starter this season, Johnson is 9-4 with an International League-best 2.52 ERA, striking out 76 and walking 33. His 1.16 WHIP ranks fifth in the league.

“He's commanding five pitches,” Sanchez said. “Anytime you can command two or three pitches you're going to have a lot of success. When you command five pitches you are going to be tough to hit. He's throwing a two-seam, four-seam, his slider to both sides of the plate, a curveball and a changeup.”

Johnson said he's locating his fastball as good as at any point in his pro career, while being able to consistently throw off-speed pitches for strikes. When trailing in the count, hitters are batting .126 against Johnson.

He's even made five relief appearances for the Indians when their bullpen was shortened due to injuries and promotions.

“It doesn't matter if he has started or came in the seventh, he's been lights out for us.” Sanchez said. “He goes out everyday and gives you your all.”

He was pretty good

International League All-Star Josh Harrison has played 19 games with the Pirates this season over the span of several promotions. How good was he with Indianapolis? His 29 doubles with the Indians still ranks tied for first in the IL, despite having 30 and 42 at-bats fewer than the other two players atop that statistical category.

Deceiving win-loss record

Stolmy Pimentel's 2-3 record doesn't give a fair indication of the job he has done with Indianapolis since being promoted in mid-June. He's lasted six innings in seven of his eight starts.

He's struck out 40 and walked 13 in 52 innings, and has only walked four batters over his last 34 innings, spanning five starts. Opponents are hitting .201 against Pimentel, who has a 2.60 ERA.

Finishing what he started

If any questions surrounded Sanchez's potential, they usually dealt with his offensive production. He's put those to rest this season with a .293 average, 10 home runs, 26 doubles and 42 RBI.

He played in two games and collected his first major league hit during a brief call-up with Pittsburgh earlier this season. Now it's just a matter of Sanchez finishing what he started, as he's batting 42 points higher than where he finished in either of his last two seasons.

“I'm pleased as far as what I've done throughout the beginning of the season,” Sanchez said, “but catching is a grind and I'm just trying to keep my energy up. I want to finish the year as strong as I started, which I think you can do as long as you stay consistent with your approach and not try to do too much.”

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