Marlins' Johnson is pitching like an ace, and the best is yet to come
Josh Johnson is 12-3 with a 2.99 ERA, 10th in the National League
He looks to be fully recovered from Aug. 3, 2007, Tommy John surgery
Florida's others starting pitcherers are 31-38 with a 5.12 ERA
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Players rarely captivate their audience in the first few innings of a game, but Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson's dominance made August 14 feel historic almost immediately. Watching the 25-year-old Johnson strike out seven of the first nine Rockies he faced, all missing wildly, Marlins fans could not resist the thought of a no-hitter.
The tension at Land Shark Stadium -- as much as there can be when 15,965 people watch a baseball game in a concrete football complex -- swelled as Johnson, a beefy 6-foot-7, 252-pound right-hander, overpowered the Rockies with mitt-searing fastballs through 6 2/3 no-hit innings.
"He was playing video games," Marlins catcher John Baker said afterward, marveling at Johnson's command. "We press A and he throws a fastball, 97 mph on the corner. We press B and he throws a back-foot slider and strikes the guy out."
But with two outs in the seventh, Garrett Atkins broke the suspense by turning on an inside fastball and drilling it to Section 211 for a home run near the left-field foul pole. Behind the plate, Baker barked some "words my mom wouldn't want me saying." In Tulsa, Okla., Johnson's parents were watching the game during dinner and his mother, Bonnie Johnson, yelled, "shoot!" which is as close as she comes to profanity.
Josh Johnson's reaction? He wiped his right hand on his pants twice and dug out a little dirt near the rubber with his cleat. Then he struck out the next hitter on a biting slider down the middle.
"That's just Josh," his father, Al Johnson, said. "He doesn't let things linger."
Johnson finished that game with a career-high 11 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings to drop his ERA to 2.85 and improve his record to 12-2.
It was his brightest moment in a breakout year. This season, which if he stays healthy will be his first complete one as a major league starter, Johnson has vaulted himself into baseball's honor society of staff aces, thanks his durability and efficiency, and one of the game's most overwhelming fastballs.
"I'm a little inconsistent at times, but I can deal with that as long as, for the most part, I'm throwing the ball well," said Johnson in his typically understated manner.
Johnson, a first-time All-Star in St. Louis last month, has given the Marlins at least six innings in 22 of his 25 starts. He boasts miniscule numbers in opponent batting average (.228), on-base percentage (.281) and WHIP (1.09).
Johnson's numbers are good enough to make him a Cy Young Award candidate, but more importantly to him and the Marlins, they appear to indicate a full recovery from his Aug. 3, 2007, Tommy John surgery, which could have marked the end of his young career.
When renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews recommended Tommy John surgery, which in Johnson's case meant relocating a tendon from his right wrist to his elbow, Johnson knew he had no other choice if he wanted to pitch again.
"All right, I'm all for it," he told Andrews.
Johnson and his pregnant wife, Heidi, sat in the back of a courtesy van the next morning as they rode from the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pensacola, Fla., to Andrews' facility in Gulf Breeze. The reflection of streetlights glittered on the water as they drove across the Pensacola Bay Bridge for Johnson's 6 a.m. appointment. Johnson was hungry from skipping breakfast, and he was trying to reassure his wife that everything was fine.
"She was more nervous than I was," Johnson said. "She had never heard of Tommy John. You tell her it's reconstructive elbow surgery and she's like, 'OK, that doesn't sound good.'
"I was pretty calm. I knew I was getting it done, so there was no backing out. I was ready to get it right."
A few hours later, Johnson was on the operating table counting backward from 100. He made it to 99 and blacked out. Heidi read every magazine in the waiting room at least twice. Johnson woke up eight hours later with a bulky bandage around his elbow.
That night, and every night for the next three weeks, Johnson slept sitting up with a pillow wedged between his right elbow and his torso to assuage the pain. He could not throw a baseball for four months.
"That was the toughest time," he said. "How am I ever going to throw again? I guess it's like 80 percent now, the coming-back rate, but you never know."