Marlins' Johnson shuts down Rockies
Righty flirts with no-no in matchup of Wild Card contenders
MIAMI -- A no-hitter may not have been in the cards for Josh Johnson on Friday night, but the Marlins' ace showed why he should be a serious Cy Young Award contender.In a crucial showdown in the National League Wild Card standings, Johnson was absolutely dominant. The All-Star right-hander kept the Rockies hitless threw 6 2/3 hitless innings and struck out a career-high 11 in the Marlins' 6-5 victory over the Rockies in front of 15,965 at Land Shark Stadium. Johnson (12-2) issued one hit, a homer to Garrett Atkins, in 7 1/3 innings before exiting after 114 pitches. He lowered his ERA to 2.85, and the Marlins improved to 18-6 in his starts. With 161 1/3 innings pitched, the 25-year-old topped the 157 innings he threw as a rookie in 2006. The 12 wins also match a personal high (2006). The Rockies, like the Marlins, entered Friday hitting .315 as a team in August. But Johnson frustrated an explosive lineup, beating Colorado for the second time this season. On May 9 at Coors Field, the right-hander yielded one run in eight innings, striking out five. "He was playing video games today," Marlins catcher John Baker said of Johnson's gem. "That's what it looked like. Pressing buttons. We press A and he throws a ball 97 mph on the corner down-and-away. We press B and he throws a slider and strikes a guy out. It was a lot of fun for me. I had a good view of what was going on." To his recollection, the only time Johnson threw a no-hitter was when he was about 7 years old. The way he was commanding his fastball, and mixing in his slider, Johnson felt he had the kind of stuff for a special night. About the fifth inning, he said: "Nobody was within 15 feet of me [in the dugout]." "Very early, you could tell," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Johnson being dominant from the start. "Those guys came in here swinging the bats. They weren't taking very good hacks at him. The ball had some life. It was a very good outing by Josh." The game got interesting in the ninth inning when the Rockies scored four runs, including three on Chris Iannetta's three-run opposite-field homer with two outs off Leo Nunez. But the game ended when pinch-hitter Todd Helton lifted a routine fly ball to center field, securing Florida's seventh win in eight games. The Marlins also collected 10 hits, improving their franchise-record streak to 11 straight games with double-digit hits. The win moves the Marlins to within two games of the Rockies in the Wild Card chase, while they are a half-game back of the Giants. Because the Phillies beat the Braves on Friday, Florida remains 4 1/2 back in the NL East. The magnitude of the game made Johnson's performance even more eye catching. On his 98th pitch -- a full-count 97-mph fastball -- Johnson yielded his lone hit, a towering home run by Atkins to left field. "He was doing a real good job of locating in and out and keeping it down, and 3-2, he just kind of left it elevated and down the middle, and I was able to put a pretty good swing on it," Atkins said. "I knew I hit it good enough to get it out. I was just happy to break up the no-hitter." Johnson had two outs in the seventh and with the count full on Atkins, he didn't want to walk the Rockies first baseman. So he challenged him with a fastball that drifted back over the plate. The question that may never be truly answered is whether Gonzalez would have allowed Johnson to go the distance if he had the no-hitter in tact. The right-hander, who underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2007, has never thrown more than 119 pitches in his career. "I still felt good. I was throwing strikes. The ball ran up over the plate, and [Atkins] hit it out," Johnson said. When asked if he could have pushed it if the Rockies remained hitless, the Marlins ace replied: "Yeah, why not? I don't know if he would want to take me out with a no-hitter." What would Gonzalez have done? "It would have been very interesting in the eighth and ninth innings," Gonzalez said. "It would have been interesting, to say the least." Johnson eclipsed his previous strikeout high of nine, done twice before, including on Aug. 4 at Washington. In the seventh inning, he struck out Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Stewart, giving him 11. The last seven times a Marlins pitcher had fanned at least 10 were recorded by Ricky Nolasco. Before that, you have to go back to Sept. 12, 2007, to find a starter reach double digits. Byung-Hyun Kim did it that day against the Nationals. Dan Uggla belted a two-run homer, giving him 111 in his career (sixth in team history). Hanley Ramirez added two hits, extending his hitting streak to 10 games. But Chris Coghlan had his hit streak snapped at 12, going 0-for-4. Not only was Johnson perfect through four innings, the right-hander was downright dominant, striking out eight. He had a stretch of striking out five straight, and he fanned seven of the first nine. Brad Hawpe became the Rockies' first baserunner, reaching on a full-count walk to open the fifth. Johnson's no-hit bid was kept intact when Ramirez made a diving catch to rob Clint Barmes of a single to center. "I thought that was a hit up the middle, and when I turned around, he was laying out for it," Johnson said. Ramirez said he got a good read on the ball, and was able to make the highlight-reel play. "I dove and it was in my glove," Ramirez said. "What can I say about J.J.? Exciting. We wish he could be out there every day. The other pitchers, too. But [Johnson] is unbelievable. He's good. Everybody knows it. We're glad we're on the same team, so we don't have to hit against him."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.