KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Erik Johnson has worked hard to simplify his game and develop a consistent routine. The White Sox pitcher said he tried to treat Sunday’s start as if it were any other.
But make no mistake, this was a big moment in Johnson’s career and he took a nice step forward. Formerly the team’s top pitching prospect, Johnson pitched six strong innings in his return to the major leagues and the White Sox completed a series sweep of the Kansas City Royals with a 7-5 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
Working with a big lead throughout, Johnson allowed three solo homers, but limited Kansas City to five base runners as the White Sox won their fourth straight.
“I put on the jersey, went outside and did my routine,” Johnson said. “It really just kind of felt like just like another game. You know --- from what I’ve been doing this year commanding the zone and throwing lots of strikes, I went out there and did it again.”
Johnson mostly kept the ball down for six innings and, even more important, kept the Royals off the bases.
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The right-hander -- who walked 15 batters en route to a 6.46 ERA in 23 2/3 innings in 2014 before he was sent to Triple-A Charlotte -- didn’t issue a free pass and threw strikes on 60 of 86 pitches in his first White Sox appearance since April 25, 2014.
The lack of walks was especially important in the sixth inning when Johnson yielded a pair of solo homers.
The International League pitcher of the year at Charlotte, Johnson started strong with a scoreless first inning. Working with a three-run lead, Johnson allowed an opposite-field solo homer to Salvador Perez in the second inning. But the pitcher didn’t let it bother him as he retired seven in a row and 10 of the next 11 batters he faced.
“We’re just seeing a confident guy,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “When you have a lead, you can get away with having some solo homers. You’d rather do that than sit there and walk everybody. I thought he pitched great. He had added a curveball, a little offspeed stuff. I don’t think anybody was really on anybody, and then it got a little interesting there.”
Things got dicey in the sixth as Jarrod Dyson started the inning with a solo homer to right to reduce the White Sox lead to 6-2. Two outs later, Mike Moustakas drove one 419 feet for another homer to make it a three-run game.
Johnson allowed a single but got out of the inning when Alex Gordon grounded out on a harrowing play. Not only was Gordon initially ruled safe at first (a White Sox challenge overturned it) but his shattered bat struck Johnson on the mound. Johnson was able to block the bat with his glove and his right forearm.
“That was a big pickup for him,” closer David Robertson said. “He has really good stuff.
“He was right on target and driving the ball in the zone. Kept everything down. He gave up four hits and three happened to be home runs. That’s pretty good. I’d take that all day.”
Johnson -- who could be auditioning for a spot in the 2016 rotation -- enjoyed himself, though he’d like to take back the three pitches that resulted in homers. He was pleased with how he attacked a Royals offense that ranks fourth in the American League in runs scored.
And he was happy with how he handled the moment, made it just like any other, even though clearly it wasn’t.
“I was definitely aggressive in the zone,” Johnson said. “They are aggressive swinging team as well. I got a lot of early contact. I got a lot of bad contact early.
“I think it’s just the body of work that I’ve been producing this year and when you go out there and do exactly what I’ve been doing this year, it’s a pretty proud moment.”