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Marlins' Johnson is pitching like an ace, and the best is yet to come

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."

Andrews has performed more than 2,500 Tommy John surgeries and the American Sports Medicine Institute says that 75 percent of his major league patients made it back to the big leagues, but those odds did little to ease the Marlins' worries.

"It's not clockwork at all," team president David Samson said. "Whenever any pitcher misses a year, it is a cause of great concern as to what that pitcher will look like when he comes back."

Johnson had shown his potential by going 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA as a rookie in 2006, but logged just 15 2/3 innings in '07 before his visit to Andrews.

His physical strength and dedication to the rehabilitation program helped him stay ahead of the pace for the typical one-year recovery period. He made five rehab starts in the minors beginning in mid-June 2008 and rejoined the Marlins on July 10 at Dodger Stadium. He had yet to regain the full velocity of his fastball, but lacked little else as he went 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA in 14 virtually pain-free starts.

"One of the things that surprised me when he first came back was he had as good of command of all of his pitches as before," said Dave Van Horne, a 41-year veteran in the Marlins radio booth who has been with the team since 2001. "He had to still build up his arm strength ... but usually after a long layoff the first thing you look for is command and he had that right at the outset."

The power eventually resurfaced, too. Prior to surgery, Johnson's fastball averaged 93 mph. This year he's regularly clocking 97 and topping out at 99.

One of the most puzzling questions Johnson has pondered was one he only considered after his comeback: What if his life in baseball was finished? Sitting in the home dugout at Land Shark Stadium earlier this month, he still did not know what he would have done if his elbow had not rebounded.

The biggest and youngest of five boys, Johnson was born into a family of athletes, and his infatuation with baseball began at age 3 in Minneapolis. Johnson still remembers, albeit through a cloudy lens, attending the Minnesota Twins' 1987 World Series championship parade. When he was 5, Johnson wrote on a piece of paper -- his parents still have it -- that he planned to be a major leaguer.

"I never even thought about doing anything other than baseball," Johnson said. "Since I was three years old, I was baseball, baseball, baseball."

His family later moved to Tulsa and Johnson blossomed as a pitcher and left fielder at Jenks High School. He occasionally made the 100-mile drive to work out with pitching guru Joe Jordan, now the Baltimore Orioles' director of amateur scouting, at Oklahoma City University's indoor facility. At the time, Jordan was a regional scout for the Marlins and quickly identified Johnson as a valuable prospect. He recommended that Florida take him in the second round of the 2002 draft, but they held out and got him in the fourth, 113th overall.

In his five sessions with Johnson, Jordan helped polish his mechanics, taught him about pitch selection and, to Johnson's surprise, told him to ditch his curveball in favor of a slider, which now is his deadliest off-speed pitch.

"Even for a young kid, he had such ability to command his fastball to both sides of the plate that it fit perfectly with a slider behind it," Jordan recalled.

Another trait that Johnson developed as a teenager in Oklahoma was his steady, unflinching demeanor. The curly, dark hair unfurling from the back of his hat is the only trace of disarray in Johnson's appearance, and he pitches with less expression than he shows while reading the menu at Olive Garden, his favorite place to eat the night before a start.

He credits his composure to watching his father play hockey and softball in recreational leagues. He admired how calm his dad stayed regardless of the game's highs and lows.

Most observers, including Johnson's father and Baker, have trouble detecting any level of frustration or jubilation from Johnson when he's on the mound.

"He never has his shoulders down, he always stands tall and he always keeps his head up," Van Horne said. "But keep your eyes on him closely. When he gets out of a stressful inning and comes up with a big out, he'll have a fist pump like everybody else. You just don't see it as often -- and he's not in trouble as much as other pitchers."

Without Johnson, it's hard to imagine the Marlins, who opened the season with a league-low $36.8 million payroll, swimming anywhere near playoff contention, but it's August and they are in the wake of teams spending at least twice that amount. Through Tuesday, Florida is 66-59 (including 18-6 when Johnson pitches) and trails Philadelphia by seven games in the NL East. Colorado leads the Marlins by 5 1/2 games in the wild-card race.

The Marlins have used 11 different starting pitchers this season and, aside from Johnson, none of the regulars have an ERA lower than 23-year-old rookie Sean West's 4.44 mark. The 10 starters who don't go by "J.J." are 31-38 with a 5.12 ERA and average fewer than 5 2/3 innings per game.

But any time Johnson takes the mound, the Marlins are as good as baseball's best. He gave them seven quality innings in wins this summer over the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of the top records in their respective leagues.

"The days he pitches, the guys know we have a real, real good chance to win the ball game or at least be in it," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's just a feeling.

"You see [opposing coaches] come in ... and they always ask if Johnson is pitching in the series. When you say no, they say, 'Great.' "

The Marlins are paying just $1.4 million for that confidence this year, and Johnson has two more seasons of arbitration before he is eligible for free agency. Florida has a reputation for spending cautiously, but has a new retractable-roof stadium scheduled to open in 2012 and opened the checkbook to sign All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez to a six-year, $70 million deal last season.

Samson says he envisions Johnson pitching the first game at the new ballpark, which is under construction on the former site of the Orange Bowl in Little Havana, but the fanbase will not believe it until Johnson gets a long-term extension.

"Would he be an example of a player that we would think about [for an extension]? Of course," Samson said. "You just have to be prudent about it, but Josh is someone we could see on our team for a very long time."

For his part, Johnson said he wants to secure his future with the Marlins, but he is waiting for the team to initiate negotiations.

"If it happens ... I'll definitely be excited because I love it here," he said. "They've been great to me. They've told me that they want to, but we'll see."

In the meantime, Johnson will continue to build on his impressive recovery. He has thrown a career-high 165 2/3 innings this year with no resistance in his elbow, which could indicate that his body is fully restored.

Once he gets through an entire season, pitching coach Mark Wiley believes that Johnson will become even more dominant than he has been this year. Wiley expects Johnson's changeup to keep progressing, and he sees in Johnson the capacity to master a splitter in the next few years.

"Guys like that, there's still room for improvement, which would make him even more difficult," Wiley said, grinning. "And he's still going to add some stuff."

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