Following a rehabilitation start in Class-A ball last August, then-Giants right-hander Tim Hudson returned to San Francisco from San Jose and talked excitedly of a young pitching prospect he saw throwing a high-90s fastball with “swing-and-miss stuff.”
That was right-hander Chase Johnson, who picked an opportune moment with Hudson in town to have the most dominant outing of his young professional career. After Hudson threw 2 2/3 innings against the Lancaster JetHawks that night – and minor leaguer Jeff Soptic recorded the final out of the third inning – Johnson came in and struck out 14 batters over six innings in San Jose’s 3-0 win.
“I was setting them up for him,” Hudson joked the next day.
This spring, Johnson, a 24-year-old third-round draft pick from Fallbrook, is in the Giants’ major-league camp for the first time. He grinned Sunday morning when asked what he remembers about last Aug. 14, when he opened the eyes of a 17-year veteran in Hudson, who retired after last season at age 40.
“I mean, first of all, Tim Hudson, one of the great pitchers of all time, I was just excited to see him pitch,” Johnson said. “And then to be able to come in after him, it was really cool, a great experience.”
As a starter, Johnson was in an unfamiliar role that night entering in relief. With Hudson scheduled to work only a few innings, Johnson said he slightly pushed back his normal pregame routine. He watched Hudson throw the first two innings before starting to warm up and entered in the top of the fourth.
“I came in,” Johnson said, “and all my pitches were working.”
The first batter Johnson faced lined a single to the outfield. The next seven struck out. Johnson faced 22 batters, allowing three hits and a walk. Ten Lancaster batters struck out swinging.
“I just felt like my stuff was all together and I was hitting spots and everything,” Johnson said. “It was just fun. It was a fun outing, you know? It’s not always like that.”
Johnson said he wasn’t aware until the game ended how many batters he struck out. He said he never had recorded double-digit strikeouts in a game at any level.
“I just went, ‘Wow,’ ” he said.
Others were wowed as well. Along with Hudson, Giants catcher Andrew Susac was in San Jose on a rehab assignment and caught Johnson’s outing.
“You can’t teach that stuff. You can’t teach 98 (mph) with sink,” Susac said Sunday. “It’s like catching a brick. He’s shattering bats with it. And when he’s throwing (his secondary pitches) right, they’re wipe-out, plus pitches. It’s impressive.”
Of course, as Susac pointed out, Class-A hitters are not the most polished. Johnson got a taste of the higher levels when he was promoted to Double A for three starts at the end of last season, and he compiled a 5.93 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, albeit with 18 strikeouts.
“It was nice to get my feet wet up there,” Johnson said. “I think definitely the first start I was trying to do too much, overthrowing the ball. The next two I started to get more within myself and focus on hitting spots.”
On Saturday, Johnson pitched a scoreless inning in his first Cactus League appearance, retiring Cleveland Indians minor leaguers Erik Gonzalez, Michael Martinez and James Ramsey on a flyout and two groundouts to hold a 2-2 tie in the sixth.
Johnson said he is using his first big-league camp to observe how Giants starters prepare for games and carry themselves, much as he did when Hudson visited San Jose last year. Johnson used their brief time before the game to quiz Hudson about his pregame routine and a little about his playing time. Then, he said, “It was time to lock it in.”
There weren’t many style similarities for the pitchers to discuss, anyway. Johnson, at a lanky 6-foot-3, has a powerful arm with four pitches. Hudson by last season was relying on movement and deception. So was there something to Hudson “setting them up” for Johnson, after all?
“We threw a lot of fastballs that night,” Susac said.