MIAMI — Boston Red Sox left-hander Brian Johnson starts a major-league game in his home state of Florida for the first time in his career on Monday.
Opposing him is the Miami Marlins‘ Trevor Richards, making his major-league debut.
Just a few months ago, Richards was at his offseason job as a teacher’s aide at Aviston (Illinois) Elementary School when he had a surreal moment. During morning announcements, the school announced that Richards had been named 2017 Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
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“The kids started clapping,” Richards said, “and everyone was giving me high-fives.”
Monday’s game at Marlins Park will be even more surreal as Richards faces a Boston team that is off to a 3-1 start and led by shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who is hitting .471.
“I’m just trying to be consistent, do the same things every day to get better,” Bogaerts told reporters on Saturday night.
Bogaerts had his 12-game hit streak snapped on Sunday, but he already has two games in which he had three hits.
Leadoff batter Mookie Betts, who led the majors in doubles over the past three years, will likely be another tough test for Richards. Betts is hitting .286 but with a .444 on-base percentage.
Meanwhile, Johnson, a two-way star in college, will get to hit on Monday since the game is in a National League ballpark.
Johnson, 27, is a native Floridian, hailing from Cocoa Beach. He had a 17-strikeout no-hitter in high school, signed with the University of Florida as part of the Gators’ No. 1 recruiting class in the nation and got to the College World Series as a freshman.
He hit .405 as a freshman in 2010 and by 2012 won the John Olerud Award as the nation’s best two-way player. The Red Sox drafted him in the first round, No. 31 overall, in 2012, and Johnson made his major-league debut in 2015.
But this year he made an Opening Day roster for the first time. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder has made six major-league starts in his career, going 2-1 with a 4.88 ERA. Last season, he went 2-0 with a 4.33 ERA, including a shutout.
Johnson will face a feisty Marlins lineup that split four games with the Chicago Cubs, one of a handful of favorites to reach the World Series this year.
Shortstop Miguel Rojas, batting .333 with a .444 on-base percentage, had the walk-off hit in Friday’s 17-inning win. Rookie third baseman Brian Anderson has five RBI in four games, including three on Sunday. He is hitting .333 with a .429 on-base percentage.
A lot on Monday will hinge on the performance of Richards, who had no Division I scholarship offers out of Mater Dei High in Breese, Ill. He also went undrafted after four years at Drury, a Division II university in Springfield, Mo.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology, Richards signed to play independent ball for the Gateway Grizzlies. He was there 13 months before the Marlins signed him on July 2, 2016.
Before the Marlins came along, Richards had a job offer to work for the U.S. Border Patrol and had started the lengthy application process.
The Marlins got to Richards first, but this was no overnight success. At the start of 2017, Richards wasn’t among Miami’s top 30 prospects.
But Richards went 12-11 with a 2.53 ERA last year, splitting time between High-A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville. He struck out 158 batters in 146 innings.
Richards, who turns 25 next month, doesn’t have overpowering stuff. His fastball ranges between 90 and 92 mph, he throws a changeup, and he’s working to improve his curve.
“I don’t throw 98 so there’s no point thinking about (velocity),” Richards said. “I focus on location and angles.”