CHICAGO -- That home run Chicago White Sox starter Erik Johnson gave up to Miguel Cabrera on Saturday won’t be held against him, as the right-hander continued to warrant a legitimate look at a 2016 starting rotation spot.
In his last chance to prove himself, Johnson gave up a two-run shot to one of the greatest right-handed hitters the game has ever seen, finishing the evening going a solid 6 1/3 innings of an eventual 4-3 White Sox victory.
Since coming up from Triple-A Charlotte when rosters expanded at the start of September, Johnson has made six starts and hasn't give up more than three earned runs in any of them.
The 25-year old finished the big league portion of his season 3-1 with a 3.34 ERA over 35 innings, and that was after he was named International League pitcher of the year for posting a 2.37 ERA over 23 games (22 starts) at Charlotte.
The bonus for the White Sox is how Johnson managed to turn things around after struggling in 2014. He earned a major league rotation spot out of spring training last season but got off to a rocky start with the White Sox, posting a 6.46 ERA in six starts before being shuttled back to the minor leagues.
His 2014 at Charlotte didn’t go much better, but he has rebounded in grand style, continuing his steady climb through the system since being a second-round pick in 2011.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is that he came back and put himself in the running,” manager Robin Ventura said. ‘When we go to spring training you’ll see a guy who has worked his way back. He’s had a nice minor league season and has worked his way back up here and it’s been pretty reliable of putting him in there and getting us in a position to win the game.”
A homegrown right-hander has been a bit of an anomaly for the White Sox. The last one the club developed and had done anything of significance in the major leagues was Daniel Hudson, but he made a name for himself with the Arizona Diamondbacks before he was plagued with injuries.
The last homegrown right-hander to give the White Sox a significant amount of starts was Danny Wright in the early 2000s. The player directory has to be flipped back to the 1990s to find right-handers such as Alex Fernandez, James Baldwin, Jason Bere and Jack McDowell, who were firmly entrenched in the rotation.
“You have to be able to develop (prospects) from within and we’ve seen quite a few of those this year with (Tyler Saladino) coming up, Trayce (Thompson), Erik,” Ventura said. “You have to continue to have those guys develop and come up here and contribute.”
Johnson made no excuses for his struggles last season, even though a dip in velocity suggested physical issues. He said he returned this year with refined mechanics and was off and running again.
"I thought I made a little progress with every start," Johnson said. "I wanted to go deeper in the game with a more proficient pitch count. I thought I accomplished that."
Counting Saturday’s start, Johnson gave up two earned runs or less in four of his six outings, including each of his last three. His only loss came in his most recent start before Saturday, when he gave up only two earned runs to the New York Yankees last weekend.
His run this season, though, looks a lot like the one he put together at the end of the 2013 season, which became the runway for his takeoff as a White Sox starter last season. He sounds confident he can alter the arc of the story this time.
“For me, it's known that I want to pitch up here,” Johnson said. “This is where I want to be and where I want to compete.”