Former Pirates teammates have bond on, off field
Before this year, the farthest Jeff Bennett and Mike Johnston might have been apart was when one was taken in the 19th round and the other in the 20th of the June 1998 draft by the Pirates.
“We got drafted the same year and we both appeared in a showcase,” Bennett said Friday before the Pirates hosted the Milwaukee Brewers in a doubleheader. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
Bennett, a right-handed pitcher, and Johnston, a lefty, both advanced in the Pirates’ organization. This season, both have arrived in the major leagues.
Only one problem: Bennett plays for the Brewers.
Bennett was one of five Pirates players taken in the Rule 5 Draft in December when he was taken fifth overall. Still, they stayed best of friends.
“We’re really like brothers. We have a really good relationship,” Bennett said.
Milwaukee’s four game-stint in Pittsburgh allows both Bennett and Johnston to catch up.
“I haven’t talked to him for about a week,” Johnston said. “He’s coming over tonight. The little lady’s making us dinner.”
This happens all the time. Bennett said when the Pirates visit the Brewers, Johnston stays at Bennett’s apartment and the same happens when Bennett is in Pittsburgh.
Before he traveled with the Brewers to St. Louis for Opening Day this season, Bennett had never stepped foot in a major league clubhouse. But neither had Johnston. Bennett split time between Class AA Altoona and AAA Nashville, racking up a 5-7 record with a 3.80 ERA in 42 games while Johnston spent his season at Altoona, going 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA and seven saves in 46 games.
Johnston said he was relieved to make it to the bigs, no longer having to live from day to day.
“When you only make $500 every two weeks and your rent is $1,200, something doesn’t add up,” he said. “There were cliques in the minors. These certain people didn’t like other people. It’s pretty close up here. It’s like a family.”
Bennett, however, had his hands full during spring training. Not only did he have to win a roster spot — where six of the 10 pitching positions were already filled — he had to win over his teammates.
“It wasn’t hard at all; all of these guys are really, really nice,” Bennett said. “It was an opportunity and I took it. It was tough competition and I had a good spring and now I’m on the team.”
They’ve been inseparable since playing together in Bradenton as rookies — since Bennett introduced Johnston to the Lord.
“We just clicked right off the bat,” Johnston said. “We were 19-years old and I saw the way he was acting and the way he was carrying himself. He was the one who saved me.”
They even met their significant others in the same place – Bennett proposing to his wife in Altoona, while Johnston’s fiance went to St. Francis University, roughly 20 miles from Blair County Ballpark.
“I was the best man in his wedding and he’s going to be the best man in mine,” Johnston said.
Bennett is 1-4 with a 3.35 ERA this season. He picked up his first major league win April 27 vs. Cincinnati when he retired the only hitter he faced. He struck out a career-high three batters May 1 against the Pirates.
“I always like to come back here to Pittsburgh,” Bennett said. “I want to come here to win. We want to win the division and I think we have a chance to do that. (Every other team in the division) has peaked right now. We haven’t yet. We need to peak at the right time and keep pushing for it.”
Even though he made seven starts between Nashville and Altoona, Bennett said he is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to win a championship.
“I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do,” he said. “I like where I’m at right now, I’m the six, seven, eight guy. I move up or back depending if we are up or behind. I just play it day by day. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”