InsidethePark.com caught up with Johnson recently to talk to him about his first outing at the Triple-A level.
"I was real nervous and real excited," said Johnson of the experience. "I started off a little shaky, but the defense picked me up and I got a chance to settle in and relax a little bit.
"I kept the team in it, and they scored a lot of runs. By them scoring a lot of runs it helped me relax even more."
Often people refer to the jump from Single-A to Double-A as the hardest to make for an up-and-coming minor leaguer. Johnson said he didn't approach the game any differently at the Triple-A level than he had at any other time in his professional career.
"You've still got to make your pitches here or at A-ball," he said. "Anywhere you go, if you make good pitches you get people out. If you make mistakes you are going to get hit more. Here a lot of mistakes get hit hard."
The 6-foot-2 red-headed Johnson comes at batters with a sinking fastball that reaches the low 90's, a hard slider in the 86-88 mph range, and a changeup. Those three pitches have led him to an outstanding three-and-a-half years in the minors, where he has compiled a 36-19 record.
"I just try to throw strikes with my fastball and let it sink and I try to bury people with my slider," said Johnson,
That strategy worked well in his first start with the Rainiers. Johnson limited Memphis to three hits and one unearned run over seven innings to lead Tacoma to a 7-1 victory.
In his second outing on Thursday, June 16, his stuff was working again. Only this time the Rainiers bats didn't come through, leaving Johnson with his first loss in Triple-A. Still, the right-hander allowed only one earned run in six innings, leaving his ERA at 0.69 through two starts (13 innings) with Tacoma.
Since joining the Mariners organization in 2000, there've been only a handful of difficult stretches for this 23-year-old. Last year while moving from Single-A San Bernadino to San Antonio was one of those few. In his words, he was "all over the mound and couldn't find his control."
Those days have passed, however, and Johnson is again mowing down the competition.
"I started throwing strikes consistently – throwing 70-to-80 strikes for ever 100 pitches – and keeping the ball down," Johnson said. "That's what helped lead to my success."
He says he enjoys his new surroundings in Tacoma, where the average daily temperatures are 30-40 degrees cooler than some of the scorching summer nights in San Antonio.
And the future looks brighter than ever.
"I'm just a phone call away from Seattle," he said. "I just need to keep doing well. Those who do well always get a chance, and that's the whole goal. Nobody plays minor league baseball for the money, that's for sure.
"I'm hoping for a September callup."
A new R. Johnson on the mound in Seattle? Don't be surprised if you see it by the end of the 2003 season.