Jay Johnson‘s promotion to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last week was something that at least three other big league organizations thought could never happen. Now, as he ascends to the top in the Phillies’ developmental ranks, the left-handed reliever is just a step from the big leagues and has proved many people wrong.
Drafted twice, Johnson was turned away by the Orioles and Blue Jays, after being selected by those teams in 2009 and 2010 respectively, due to concerns raised with his elbow during physical examinations. In both instances, the team and player had come to terms on a financial agreement, but the offers were rescinded following the discovery of bone spurs and loose chips in his joint.
The following year the New Brunswick, Canada native worked out for the Mariners at their spring training home in Arizona. It had reached the point where Johnson was no longer concerned with a monetary agreement, but he instead was willing to sign for much less. He simply wanted the chance to wear a pro uniform.
“I went out with the Mariners to just try and play and I said, ‘I just want to play. Just let me get a jersey,'” Johnson explained in a recent interview. “They failed my physical and I wasn’t even asking for anything then.”
After that third letdown Johnson’s college coach, Brian Kubicek, who greatly wanted to see Johnson succeed as a professional, made a phone call to an old friend, Phillies senior advisor to the general manager Pat Gillick. Before long, Johnson threw in front of a Phils scout in Arizona and was so impressive that he was flown to Clearwater to pitch for a collection of organizational brass. Soon, despite any concerns over his health the Phillies took somewhat of a risk and a contract was on the table. Johnson became a pro at long last.
According to Johnson, disappointment was never a factor, as he stayed confident that he’d get his shot to stand atop a professional mound one day.
“I was still playing in between, ’cause I was still going to school in 2009 and 2010 and I always knew that I was capable of playing, so it wasn’t a matter of (feeling discouraged), it was just a matter of when somebody was gonna give me a chance to play. I was never too worried about it. Somebody was gonna let me play,” Johnson said.
As a pro, the six-foot-two 210-pounder has improved each season. In 2011, Johnson made his minor league debut with Class A Lakewood, posting a 1-5 record along with five saves with a 2.94 ERA while averaging a strike out an inning. The following year, Johnson tallied a combined 2-1 record with a 4.24 ERA in 33 outings at three levels. This season, Johnson looks sharper than ever, posting a 2-2 record with three saves, a 2.65 ERA along with an 11.09 K/9 mark.
While the amount of free passes that he issues (six walks per nine innings for his career) is a bit of a concern, Johnson, who was on Team Canada’s World Baseball Classic roster this year, could be lefty specialist in the making, as he has held left-handed batters to a .203 batting average against for his career.
With Reading this year, the 23-year-old tallied a 1.76 ERA after a tough April to earn his promotion. Johnson credits Fightin Phillies manager Dusty Wathan with helping him achieve success this year by using him in the most ideal spots. He also feels that building a good rapport with his backstops is a big contributor to how he’s excelled in the minors.
“Last year, I got to live with Steven Lerud, he was my roommate. And this year’s it’s been John Suomi (who) I go to talk to. I just try to find a catcher, especially a veteran one, and I just try to pick his brain as much as I possibly can,” Johnson said.
The youngster made his Triple-A debut on Friday in a very Jay Johnson-like effort, throwing a scoreless frame while striking out two and walking one.
Just one level away from the big show, Johnson plans to use his snowballed confidence to continue to mow down opponents and defy the odds.
“I say this all the time: hitters get hot, it’s the same, pitchers get hot too and you just gotta stay even keeled and just go about your business and try to be the same.”