Originally published in Issue No. 12 of The Nutshell
Chase Johnson couldn't believe his luck.
Through his first four seasons, he managed to avoid significant injury and earned his way to Triple-A Sacramento, one step shy of the major leagues as a member of the San Francsico Giants' 40-man roster.
That changed April 22, 2017, when he felt a pop in his elbow after throwing a slider during just his sixth appearance for the River Cats. He later learned he had torn his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery.
"It was definitely tough to come to terms with," Johnson said. "As soon as it happens, you know you're probably out for at least a year. It's a long recovery."
Johnson returned more than a year later, hoping for an injury-free 2018 season and the chance to build up strength and confidence post-elbow surgery through consistent appearances. But on June 13, 2018, Johnson was standing at the rail in the home dugout at The Diamond. He had just thrown four scoreless innings against Portland in his seventh appearance after Tommy John surgery when a foul ball rocketed toward the dugout.
"I remember seeing the line drive off the bat," Johnson said. "I saw the ball coming, and I just had time to turn my head. "Next thing I know, I'm on the ground. I go to the hospital, and I'm out for two and a half weeks with a concussion."
Unfortunately, that was just the first of two unlucky injuries that derailed Johnson's return to the mound in 2018.
"I come back from the concussion, and I ended up getting an infection on my throwing hand index finger about a month later, and that puts me out another two weeks," Johnson said. "So it's like I was pitching, injured, pitching, injured. It's tough to get into a groove, tough to get into a rhythm when you're not out there pitching consistently."
Johnson had never dealt with significant injuries in his career, but now two straight seasons were altered by elbow surgery and accidents. The untimely disruption of his professional plan gave him a new perspective.
"Before, I took for granted being able to go out there and play all the time, before I had to deal with all these injuries," Johnson said. "And now it's like you get to the field and you're just happy that you're able to go out, feel healthy and play baseball. I feel like I appreciate it a lot more now."
Johnson has been with the Flying Squirrels since late April and has found his rhythm, especially after enduring what he called a "rough start" to the season. In his last 18 appearances, Johnson has posted a 2.19 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched. He credits his success to figuring out some mechanical aspects of his delivery.
Johnson said this year has started to feel like it did during 2015 and 2016, the two best seasons of his minor league career, when he said he could constantly feel himself becoming a better pitcher thanks to consistent action on the mound.
"As the season has gone on, I feel like I've been able to get better and more confident," Johnson said. "You have to be able to consistently pitch in order to gain that confidence and figure things out as you go. I've finally been able to do that again this season."
Johnson credits a smoother delivery, improved fastball location and "much better" slider for his successes this year. The Fallbrook, Calif. native feels like he is finally challenging hitters and consistently throwing all of his pitches for strikes again, whether he is pitching in relief or taking the ball to start the game.
"I think I'm almost like a Swiss Army knife, being able to throw out of the bullpen or start," Johnson said. "I feel like it adds value for the team, just to be able to do both of those things. I don't want to rule one out because I really do like doing both of them."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.