Just hours before making his Major League Baseball debut Sept. 4 at Yankee Stadium, Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Erik Johnson reached out to someone who could relate to the thoughts racing through his mind.
The 23-year-old called his coach at Los Altos High, Sandy Wihtol, a former pitcher with the Cleveland Indians who made his MLB debut on almost the same day 34 years earlier.
“I shared with him my experiences,” said Wihtol, whose initial big-league appearance came in relief against the Toronto Blue Jays Sept. 7, 1979. “I told him, ‘It’s just another game – it just happens to be your first – and you’re going to have plenty more games at that level.”
Johnson’s first start wasn’t an easy one – up against a playoff-contending team with a lethal lineup – and he took the loss in a 6-5 decision.
The big righty surrendered five runs, only three of them earned, and seven hits over six innings. He walked three and struck out one.
“It’s a real tough lineup they have over there,” Johnson said of the Yankees in a postgame video interview featured on the Chicago Tribune website. “I thought I could have done a little better job, but overall, I thought it was a good one to start with.”
After getting the first two batters he faced to ground out, Johnson gave up a home run to Robinson Cano. Two walks and a hit followed, but Johnson escaped the bases-loaded jam by striking out Ichiro Suzuki.
The 2008 Los Altos High graduate kept the Yankees in check the next two innings, and the last-place White Sox entered the fourth in a 1-all tie. But by the time the inning ended, Chicago trailed by five runs.
After giving up a leadoff single to Alex Rodriguez, Johnson committed a throwing error that enabled Suzuki to reach first base safely. Lyle Overbay followed with an RBI double and Brett Gardner drilled a triple that scored two more. Cano’s infield single then brought Gardner home.
Johnson settled down in the fifth and tossed a scoreless sixth as well before giving way to fellow rookie Daniel Webb.
Johnson’s family was in the stands to see his every pitch.
“I am happy that my son has achieved a dream of his,” father Roy Johnson said. “I might have preferred his first game not be against so many (future) Hall of Famers, but I am sure he loved it.”
Wihtol wanted to be there, too, but he was on his way to Arizona to play in a golf tournament with friends from high school.
“I’ll get out to Chicago to see him,” Wihtol said. “I’m really proud of him. It’s wonderful to have a guy from the community with so much talent who is so humble and has worked so hard to get where he’s at.”
Johnson, a 2011 second-round pick out of Cal, started this season at Double-A Birmingham and was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in June.