Minor league notebook

Johnson is eager to conquer a new frontier

Muscle strains have shelved Ryan Kalish since April 21. Muscle strains have shelved Ryan Kalish since April 21. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2011

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Many Red Sox prospects dream of being stars like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Matty Johnson just wants to be the next Daniel Nava.

Nava made his major league debut last June at age 27 after a plethora of injuries left a void in left field. He hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw, and appeared in 60 games. Nava’s story was a tale of luck, resilience, and a former independent league player finally making it to the big leagues.

To some, it was a fairy tale. But to Johnson, then playing in the independent Frontier League in Illinois, it served as inspiration.

Now, the 23-year-old is the starting center fielder for Single A Lowell, hitting .480 (12 for 25) with two doubles and a triple in eight games. And while he knows he’s a long way from Fenway, Johnson finds comfort in Nava’s unconventional path and the advice Nava gave him during spring training.

“He just told me, ‘Don’t be nervous. Play your game, and do what you did to get here. It’ll all work out,’ ’’ Johnson said. “The Red Sox are a good organization as far as giving people chances.’’

It makes sense that Johnson looks up to Nava. They played in the same independent league and are both on the smaller side, Johnson at 5 feet 8 inches, 165 pounds, Nava at 5-10, 200. They aren’t prototypical major league prospects.

Last summer, Johnson found himself with the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies after an abrupt end to his career at Bellevue University. The NAIA forced the school’s baseball team to forfeit its season after confusion arose regarding one of Bellevue’s transfer players.

Johnson was undrafted and without many options. He joined a Missouri-based team in the M.I.N.K. collegiate summer league. There, he estimated he played 20-25 games.

“I had a couple of scouts come out to watch me, but I did bad,’’ Johnson said. “They told me, ‘Just go play in the independent league. See what happens.’ ’’

So Johnson joined the Grizzlies, for whom he batted .313 and swiped 24 bases in 47 games. Baseball America named him the No. 1 independent league prospect at the end of the season. (Nava received the same honor in 2007.)

“The Kansas City Royals called me first,’’ Johnson said. “They wanted to sign me, but they wanted me to do a workout. I didn’t really want to do that. I just waited. The Red Sox called me probably 10 minutes later.’’

The Sox didn’t require a workout, so Johnson signed immediately.

During spring training, Johnson impressed with his speed. Now he’s turning heads with his hot hitting and the way he can beat out ground balls for infield singles.

“The thing for him is to put the ball in play,’’ said Lowell manager Carlos Febles. “He was swinging and missing a lot, hitting too many balls under. With his speed, he just has to put the ball in play. We talked to him. ‘You have to use your tools. You have to use your speed. You have to put the ball in play. You cannot be swinging and missing.’ ’’

Johnson said his hitting improved noticeably at the end of spring training, when one of the hitting coaches encouraged him to change where he gripped the bat.

“I’m able to get to every pitch now,’’ Johnson said.

And that’s what’s making it hard to ignore the former independent league outfielder.

“He’s real hungry,’’ Febles said. “He works hard. He has some tools: He can hit, he can run, and he can play good defense. He’s finding a way to get his name in the lineup. Every time I put him in, he does something special.’’

Slow going for Kalish General manager Theo Epstein said Ryan Kalish, who has not played since April 21, is slowly recovering from a muscle strain in his neck and trapezius. “That has been a nuisance for him,’’ Epstein said. “It has slowed him down a little bit.’’ Kalish was initially sidelined with a shoulder injury that has since healed . . . Former Sox first-round pick Jason Place, who was released earlier this season, was let go by the Yankees last week. The outfielder had hit .178 in 27 games for Single A Tampa and Double A Trenton. The 27th overall pick in 2006, Place has hit .230 over six minor league seasons.

Starry night Double A Portland pitchers Stephen Fife and Alex Wilson, outfielders Chih-Hsien Chiang and Alex Hassan, and infielder Will Middlebrooks were selected to play for the Eastern Division in the Eastern League All-Star Game July 13 in Manchester, N.H. Chiang is hitting .299 with 13 home runs and 50 RBIs, with a franchise-record three grand slams. Fife, who will be making his second All-Star appearance, is 9-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 14 games . . . Pawtucket righthander Matt Fox will play in the Triple A All-Star Game, to be played in Salt Lake City July 13. The 28-year-old is 4-2 with a 3.73 ERA in 18 games (11 starts) . . . Single A Salem sent Michael Almanzar to low Single A Greenville and called up fellow first baseman Miles Head. At the time of his promotion, Head led the South Atlantic League with a .338 average and had 15 homers, 25 doubles, and 53 RBIs in 66 games.

Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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