After long journey, Boston's Brian Johnson earns first career win

TORONTO -- In the top of the ninth inning Tuesday night, three outs from his first major league win, Brian Johnson sat next to Mookie Betts in the Boston Red Sox dugout and talked about old times together in the minors.

After all, Johnson's journey is what made this night so special.

Drafted 31st overall by the Red Sox in 2012, Johnson always figured it would be smooth sailing to the big leagues. But as recently as last summer, he was almost overwhelmed by self-doubt over whether he would see the bright lights of a major league ballpark ever again.

That's what happens when you get hit in the face by a line drive in only your fourth minor league appearance in 2012 and pitch through numbness in your left hand three years later during your first major league start, a 4 1/3-inning grind in which you walk four Houston Astros batters and get sent right back to Triple-A.

The numbness was caused by an irritated ulnar nerve, an issue Johnson hid from the Sox in order to maintain a chance to get called up. He finally succumbed to the injury, but apprehension over his status on the organization's depth chart led to an anxiety disorder that required him to step away from the game for six weeks last season and seek treatment.

And just when it seemed like Johnson finally was back on track, there was another scare two weeks ago when another line drive struck the side of his head in a start for Triple-A Pawtucket. This time, it was only a glancing blow. He didn't miss a start, and when Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez took paternity leave Sunday for the birth of his son, the 26-year-old Johnson got called up to make a spot start in the opener of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

It took 21 months, but Johnson was back on a big-league mound. So he wasn't about to come unglued over allowing eight of the first 11 Blue Jays batters to reach base.

"I think what I've been through helped me get through those first two innings," Johnson said. "Knowing my back's not against the wall and I could do it."

Johnson gave up a long home run to Justin Smoak to open the third inning, then retired eight of the next nine batters while the Red Sox offense went to work and built a three-run lead. Johnson gave up four runs in five innings before turning it over to the bullpen for the final 12 outs of an 8-7 victory.

"I didn't even think about a win until the seventh. I didn't even put it together," Johnson said. "Especially the last inning, I felt like my heart was racing a little bit just because of the adrenaline. But it was exciting."

With Rodriguez set to rejoin the team, the Red Sox optioned Johnson to Triple-A almost as soon as they gave him the ball as a memento from career win No. 1. But unlike two years ago, when Johnson's mind was racing about his health and whether he blew his chance to get back to the majors, he's at peace now.

"I think I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a little thought that I might not [ever make it back], just from everything that happened," Johnson said. "But after spring training, after my exit meeting with [manager] John [Farrell] and [pitching coach] Carl [Willis], I felt like this year would be a big year for me. I don't know what it was, but I felt like I would make it back at some point in time."