San Francisco sent Chris Johnson straight to the Northwest League after signing the 17th-round Draft pick last summer. And even though the short-season league kept the right-hander more or less in his backyard, the experience was something of a whirlwind.
A year later, the Giants have sent a more comfortable Johnson back to Salem-Keizer. And on Friday, the Volcanoes' Opening Day starter rewarded that decision by pitching six shutout innings in a 3-2 win over Hillsboro.
Johnson (1-0) allowed two hits while striking out three and walking one in the best start of his pro career. The outing was that much sweeter for the 21-year-old because his dad, Craig, was able to make the trip down from his hometown in Washington.
"I'm glad he got to see me pitch well," Johnson said.
The University of Portland product struggled in his 2012 debut, going 2-4 with a 6.84 ERA in 16 appearances, including six starts. He struck out 47 and walked 11 but gave up 56 hits, including seven homers, in 48 2/3 innings.
Johnson was strong from the outset Friday, striking out Brian Billigen in the first at-bat in Hops history. He allowed a single to the next hitter but retired the next 10 in order.
Johnson said his biggest goal this summer is improving his early-count command, something that produced immediate results.
"I think it's both mental and mechanical for me," he said. "My mechanics, if I can be fluid, it's a lot easier for me to get ahead. At the same time, from the mental side, I have to envision and kind of see every pitch before it happens in your mind to be able to repeat that through the game."
Mechanically, Johnson's goal is to work toward the plate in a smoother fashion. He's had the tendency to lunge too early in his delivery, and kicking that habit will allow him to better control his fastball to both sides of the plate.
"I'm working on staying back on my back leg a little longer," he explained, "staying balanced and through the delivery and have everything going toward the plate."
Johnson hopes the improved command early in counts will allow him to more effectively use his off-speed pitches. The best of that bunch is a slider on which he leaned heavily Friday. He also has a changeup and a curveball.
"I think I threw [my slider] the most [tonight]," he said. "I had a pretty good feel of it and I was throwing it both for strikes and to put some guys away, managed to generate some awkward swings. I had some swings and misses on the changeup to lefties, too."
Ben Eckels (0-1) started and took the loss in Hillsboro's first game since relocating from Yakima. He struck out seven and allowed three runs -- two earned -- on four hits over four innings. Ryan Gebhardt got the Hops' first hit, while Jordan Parr scored their first run on Billigen's single in the eighth.