FORT MYERS, Fla. — Brian Johnson had been battling illness over the past couple of days, but the 28-year-old lefthander was understandably eager to make his start on Thursday against the Minnesota Twins.
In retrospect, maybe he should have taken another recovery day or two.
Johnson’s outing did not go well, and it did not go on for very long. He allowed five hits and three runs while recording just four outs in the Red Sox’ 12-1 loss at JetBlue Park.
Manager Alex Cora, who removed the pitcher after Luke Raley’s two-run triple with one out in the second, provided a succinct assessment when asked how Johnson looked to him.
“Like he’d been sick for a few days,’’ said Cora.
Johnson’s previous appearance this spring came in a start Feb. 25 against the Pirates. That went better — he allowed two hits and a run in two innings, with no walks and two strikeouts.
Then he got ill — there was a bug going around with some of the Red Sox over the past week or so — and it set him back to the point where Cora said pitching coach Dana LeVangie believe Johnson needs a few minor league appearances to build himself back up.
Johnson said he felt good on the mound on Thursday but lamented that he could not put hitters away when he got to two strikes. Three Twins got hits off Johnson in two-strike situations.
“I felt good,’’ Johnson said. “I was just trying to get my energy back. I think I might have thrown too much in my bullpen. I got ahead but just didn’t put them away. There was rust. But I felt better the past couple of days. [Cora] asked me if I thought I could start and I said without a doubt. I’ve just got to make better two-strike pitches.’’
Johnson, the 31st overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Red Sox, made his first Opening Day roster last year. He was a helpful swingman for the 2018 Sox, making 38 appearances, including 13 starts, while going 4-5 with a 4.17 ERA in 99⅓ innings.
He was the first Red Sox pitcher to make 13-plus starts and 25-plus relief appearances in a season since Tim Wakefield did it each year from 1999-2002.
“I know it’s going to be a swingman thing for me again,’’ said Johnson, who is out of minor league options.
But Johnson does have a chance to at least make an interesting case as a starter. Cora has said the Red Sox will use a sixth starter to begin the season since they play 11 straight days right off the bat. The manager said before Johnson’s start Thursday that he doesn’t expect anyone other than Johnson or righthanded fellow swingman Hector Velazquez to be in the mix for that start.
“Those two guys were very important for us last year,’’ said Cora.
Johnson is 6-4 with a 4.40 ERA in 19 starts in his three previous MLB seasons. But he does have one genuine masterpiece on his record, a five-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout shutout of the Mariners on May 27, 2017, that seemed to be lifted from a Bruce Hurst highlight reel. (That game took 2 hours and 23 minutes to play, or 44 fewer minutes than Thursday’s spring game.)
Johnson said Thursday that he does take a different approach when he’s starting compared to when he’s working in relief.
“Coming out of the bullpen, I feel like I can come in and attack hitters,’’ he said. “As a starter, I feel like I can go out and have success [using all] my stuff.’’
Johnson said his breaking ball tends to have a little more snap to it when he’s pitching in relief. His command of it, or lack thereof, was a reason for his struggles on Thursday, Cora said.
“His breaking ball was OK,’’ said Cora. “We just need him to get the repetitions to build him back up.’’