Erik Johnson and Marcus Semien know all about adversity, so the White Sox’ shockingly bad season is nothing new for the rookie duo.
Johnson and Semien were collegiate teammates at Cal-Berkeley, but they were left in limbo following the 2010 season when a reduction in state funding put the Golden Bears’ varsity baseball program on the chopping block.
“Each player in our program had the chance to transfer and play immediately at any other program in the country,” said Cal head baseball coach David Esquer on Tuesday in a telephone interview. “They didn’t waiver. Those two guys, they have a tremendous sense of loyalty.
“They love the school here and they didn’t even think about it. They wanted to come here and play that last year, and if it meant being the last year, they were going to play with our team. That always meant a lot to me.”
Johnson, a right-handed starting pitcher, and Semien, a versatile infielder, not only stayed in school, they led the Bears to the College World Series in 2011.
Before the ’11 season, a fundraising campaign netted nearly $10 million and the Cal baseball program is back on solid footing.
Can Johnson and Semien help the woeful Sox regain prominence?
Not much can be done this season, which mercifully ends for the White Sox on Sunday.
Tuesday night at Cleveland, the Sox held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning before pinch hitter Jason Giambi connected on a two-out, 2-run homer off closer Addison Reed to lift the Indians to their 13th straight win over the White Sox.
With five games to play, the White Sox (62-95) need to go 1-4 to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1970.
Looking ahead, Johnson and Semien at least provide a semblance of hope.
Johnson, 23, was 12-3 with a 1.96 ERA with Class AAA Charlotte and AA Birmingham before joining the Sox on Sept. 3. A second-round draft pick in 2011, Johnson is 2-2 with a 2.82 ERA in 4 starts, with 1 more to go.
In his last two outings, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has allowed just 2 earned runs while striking out nine in 122⁄3 innings.
“All his stuff really projected to the higher levels,” Esquer said. “His fastball, his breaking pitch, everything. He’s built like a horse, really strong. Even here, you knew his game translated into the professional game. As a matter of fact, he was probably better suited for the professional game because it’s a power game.”
Semien, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011, also joined the White Sox on Sept. 3 and he’s batting .300 with 1 home run and 6 RBI in 16 games. A natural shortstop who also plays second base, Semien might wind up at third base next season.
“He doesn’t give an inch on a groundball, and maybe even the harder it’s hit the better,” Esquer said. “That translates really good to playing third base.
“He has an accurate arm, a strong arm. In the pro game, it’s about the bat. His bat has to force its way into the lineup, and I think the White Sox have taken notice.”
The Sox have indeed taken notice of Semien, and Johnson as well.
“Erik was our Friday No. 1 starter; he pitched all of our biggest games,” Esquer said. “Marcus was a shortstop here. No doubt in my mind they had the skill set and ability to do it.
“Beyond being great players, they’re the finest kids I’ve ever coached. Respectful, just great kids that come from great families. We couldn’t be prouder.”
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