Josh Johnson built to be a dominator

Expect 28-year-old righty to play pivotal role in Marlins' efforts to make postseason

Originally Published: April 11, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins will take the field amid an atmosphere of April big-game anticipation Wednesday night. It's not only because Joey Cora will be making his managerial debut for Miami while Ozzie Guillen plays the lead role in the biggest celebrity squirm-athon since Rush Limbaugh decided to share his opinions about a certain Georgetown University law school student.

Nothing puts the focus back on the game -- for a welcome 2½ hours, at least -- more than an elite pitching matchup, and the 206th straight sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park will be in for a treat when the Phillies send Roy Halladay to the mound against Josh Johnson. Halladay, 34, is an eight-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner who enhances his Hall-of-Fame credentials with each quality start. Johnson, 28, is 48-24 with a career 2.99 ERA, and is generally regarded as one of the top 10 starters in baseball when healthy (a little more on that later).

[+] EnlargeJosh Johnson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireJosh Johnson allowed three runs in six innings and took the loss in the Marlins' season-opening game against the Cardinals last week.

This is the fifth career meeting between the two, and they've shown the ability to create some memorable synergy. Halladay threw a perfect game against the Marlins to beat Johnson 1-0 on May 29, 2010, but he's dropped three of four head-to-head meetings with Johnson going back to his Toronto days and Johnson's rookie year in 2006. After the Marlins beat the Phillies 2-1 last May, Halladay half-jokingly observed, "I'm kind of hoping he goes and plays somewhere else.''

Much of the allure to the matchup revolves around the classic student-versus-Jedi master narrative. Two years ago, Johnson asked for and received permission from Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee to watch Halladay throw a bullpen session. When he later hung around Halladay at the All-Star Game and they talked pitching while shagging fly balls in the outfield, it was widely reported that Johnson had the mother of all professional man-crushes. One South Florida columnist observed that Johnson was "borderline stalking'' Halladay.

In reality, that storyline is simplistic and overdone. Johnson has taken advantage of opportunities to talk shop with Halladay through the years, but only in the name of professional improvement. This isn't an Alex Rodriguez-Cal Ripken Jr. situation, where Johnson woke up each morning to a Doc Halladay poster above his bed.

"I remember when I said I was going to watch him throw a bullpen session, and people were like, 'Oh, you're going to pick up something,''' Johnson says. "No. I just wanted to see the best pitcher in the game work on his craft. I like to watch guys take batting practice, too. It's the same exact thing.''

The observation ritual is all about finding "keys,'' according to Johnson. He has a habit of tapping himself in the leg to remind himself to stay back in his delivery, and he was pleasantly surprised years ago when he saw Josh Beckett doing the same thing. In the course of watching Halladay, Johnson was struck by how seamless and fluid the veteran made it look in the bullpen.

Johnson is listed at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, while Halladay stands 6-6, 230, but their repertoires are nothing alike. Halladay is a relentless strike thrower who relies on a sinker, cutter and curveball to induce his fair share of ground-ball outs. Johnson is more the classic power pitcher, although he has upgraded his curve and changeup to the point that they've become weapons for him. Two years ago Johnson threw the two pitches a career-high 15 percent of the time. He has continued to refine his offspeed stuff this season as a way to keep hitters off-balance.

In the clubhouse before starts, Halladay retreats into a competitive cocoon bordering on a trance. He might as well hang a "Do Not Disturb'' sign above his locker. Johnson, in contrast, exudes an easygoing vibe most of the time. His favorite way of relaxing before games is to stake out a spot on the clubhouse sofa and watch golf on television.

Johnson plays to a 3.7 handicap, with a personal best of 71 at Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev., on his 27th birthday. He is a great admirer of PGA players who hit all those fades and draws and use their imagination to visualize their way through a round, and tries to take the same methodical, even-tempered approach to navigating opposing lineups. Even as a young pitcher, Johnson rarely required a visit from the catcher to calm his nerves.

"Things just don't seem to affect him a whole lot,'' says Marlins catcher John Buck. "He's pretty focused. When I first started catching him and stuff would go south or something in the game would go bad, he was already moving on to the next out. He's able to flush it real quick. When he's on, it's like he's playing catch with me and it doesn't matter who the hitter is.''

As the youngest of five brothers, Johnson learned to compete against the older kids and keep a lid on his emotions. The main lesson he learned, he says, was the importance of "keeping your mouth shut and knowing when it's your turn to speak.'' During his formative years, his favorite big leaguers were Ken Griffey Jr. and Kirby Puckett -- Griffey because he was the best player in the game, and Puckett because Johnson was born in Minneapolis. When he was 5 years old, the family moved to Jenks, Okla., a Tulsa suburb and the home of 2006 Miss America Jennifer Berry.

Johnson dabbled in basketball as a power forward at Jenks High School, but eventually focused on pitching and attracted the attention of Marlins scouting director Stan Meek. Johnson slipped to the fourth round because of injury concerns and signed for a bonus of $300,000. On his way through the minors, his role model was Carl Pavano, a 200-inning horse who went 18-8 for the Marlins and made the All-Star team in 2004. Johnson has long since passed Pavano in baseball's pitching hierarchy. But as tall pitchers with a lot of moving parts, they've encountered similar challenges staying healthy.

Johnson underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, missed the end of the 2010 season with a strained muscle in his back and shut it down in May last season with shoulder issues. He's healthy now, but the extreme torque and drive required to get everything in the right position can take a toll over time.

"There are days when I wake up and I can barely get out of bed,'' Johnson says. "It takes me 20-30 minutes to get loose and get going in the morning. That's usually at the end of the year. It's tough, but you have to live with it and get in that cold tub as much as possible.''

In an effort to alleviate those problems moving forward, Johnson altered his regimen over the winter. He spent the offseason working with physical therapist Tim Soder in Las Vegas. Soder focused on manual resistance exercises to strengthen Johnson's shoulder, and Johnson now incorporates the exercises into his regular routine with help from the Marlins' training staff.

As opposing hitters and Johnson's Miami teammates will attest, some things just come naturally.

"He was just born with it,'' says Heath Bell, Miami's new closer. "He was born with a gifted arm, gifted pitches, and the body and the build and the height. He was a man at probably 10 years old. He's one of those guys who makes you think, 'Man, if I had that, I wonder what I could do.'''

Heath Bell He was born with a gifted arm, gifted pitches, and the body and the build and the height. He was a man at probably 10 years old. He's one of those guys who makes you think, 'Man, if I had that, I wonder what I could do.'

-- Marlins closer Heath Bell on Johnson

Regardless of when the Guillen controversy dies down -- or if it lingers long enough to disrupt a season -- Johnson will play a pivotal role in the Marlins' efforts to make the playoffs for the third time in the franchise's 21-year history. He has Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez behind him in the rotation. But as the Marlins discovered last year, it's not the same when every fifth day rolls around and the staff ace can't take the ball.

"If we lose Josh, everybody else has to step up beyond what's expected of them,'' Buck says. "That's why he's important. He gives us that stability where everybody can just go about their business and not feel like they have to do more than they're capable of doing. You know every fifth day who that stopper is. Other guys pitch off that.''

After an encouraging spring and a mediocre debut against St. Louis last week, Johnson is ready to ramp it up a notch. He'll do his best to be oblivious to Halladay, but that's not easy when he looks at the scoreboard every inning and sees all those zeroes.

"You can see his demeanor when you pitch against him,'' Johnson says. "He has one goal in mind, and that's to go right at guys and get those 27 outs. That's how we all want to be. But he does it more often than everybody else does.''

Johnson, a towering figure in more ways than one, shouldn't sell himself short. If history is any indication, he'll give Doc and the Phillies all they can handle.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer