Pitching, not smiling, is where White Sox’ Erik Johnson delivers

Written By BY DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN Staff Reporter Posted: 03/07/2014, 06:20pm

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It can be confirmed that Erik Johnson can, in fact, smile.

There was a sighting in the White Sox’ clubhouse recently, and it’s reported to be a rather broad and friendly grin. This one was prompted by the suggestion that Johnson has been something of a mystery since the Sox called him up in September.

‘‘Good luck,’’ Sox infielder Marcus Semien said of pulling a grin out of his former high school, college and minor-league teammate. ‘‘He’s just focused. That’s just him. Whatever it takes him to throw seven innings, he’ll do it. Erik’s a good guy. He still has a good time. He’s just a serious guy once he gets in here.’’

It also can be confirmed, from all indications over the course of his minor-league career (2.21 ERA) and his stint with the Sox in September (3.25 ERA in five starts), that Johnson can pitch. Major-league scouts saw what the Sox see in Johnson, whom they project as an important piece in the starting rotation for years to come. Baseball America ranked him the No. 2 prospect in the organization.

‘‘They see stuff,’’ pitching coach Don Cooper said. ‘‘They see four pitches — a major-league fastball when it’s located, a major-league curve when he throws it for a strike, a major-league change when he throws it for a strike and an above-average major-league slider when he throws it for a strike with depth. I see the same thing.’’

Cooper said he expects from Johnson — a 6-3, 230-pound second-round pick from Cal in 2011 — what he expects from any starter.

‘‘My expectations of him are go out and start 33 games, give us the bulk of the work,’’ Cooper said. ‘‘A Chicago White Sox starting pitcher’s job description is to stay healthy, take the bulk of the game, give us a chance to win and hang around long enough for you to pick up the decision because you’ve been proficient enough to go deep into the game.’’

There will be bumps in the road. Cooper knows this from the experiences of other unproven pitchers with high expectations going through their first full year.

‘‘Not everybody grabs the brass ring the first time around the merry-go-round, and the rest is history,’’ Cooper said. ‘‘I remember Jon Garland. He was a first-round pick, and everybody expected him to be great as soon as he got there, and he took some lumps. And he was tough enough mentally to fight, and he turned out to be a pretty darn good major-league pitcher, so patience has to be involved with first-year guys. There are going to be ups and downs. Whether it’s a first-year guy or second-year guy, starter or reliever, stay the course, stay the course, keep your head down, keep working and keep playing.’’

Keeping his head down, well . . . that’s not going to be a problem for Johnson.

‘‘When I get to [the ballpark], I’m focused,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I guess it’s a game face that I turn on when I go out there to compete. I try to stay as even-keeled as I can. I do like to smile. I like to have fun. It’s just one side of me.’’

Veteran David Purcey, a 2004 first-round pick who has a locker next to Johnson’s at Camelback Ranch, said Johnson has the right demeanor to deal with what lies before him: lofty expectations and facing major-league lineups every fifth day. He has seen a lighter side to Johnson, but he sees a manner that will suit him well for the majors.

‘‘He’s very serious,’’ Purcey said, ‘‘but not as serious as he looks. He’s pretty relaxed inside, so that’s good.

‘‘Just when you don’t expect it, he surprises you when he lets loose a little bit. Once he loosens up, he’ll fit right in. He’s a good kid.’’

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CST_soxvan

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