Johnson, Miami downplay ace's early struggles
After making nine starts in '11, JJ allows 21 hits in first two starts
PHILADELPHIA -- What if manager Ozzie Guillen's comments aren't the biggest problem the Marlins have to deal with at the moment?
Scary thought. Also an understandable one after right-hander Josh Johnson, one of the bedrocks of Miami's hopes for returning to the postseason, gave up six runs on a career-high 11 hits in just 3 2/3 innings of Wednesday night's 7-1 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Now, that can happen to the best of pitchers, and when the top starters are mentioned, Johnson is sure to be on the list. But some concern can be expected since he's coming off shoulder inflammation that sidelined him after just nine starts last season.
Throw in the fact that he's allowed double-digit hits in each of his first two starts this season after doing it only once previously in his career, that his outing Monday night was his shortest since August 2010 and it's also the most runs he's allowed since then.
Both Johnson and Joey Cora, filling in as manager while Guillen serves his five-game suspension, made compelling arguments that the only thing wrong is a little rust after sitting out most of last season while rehabbing his shoulder and a couple bad breaks. And a closer look at the fateful third inning, when the righty gave up five of his runs, supports the contention that he didn't pitch as badly as the numbers indicate.
"He did miss almost a whole year last year," Cora said. "Even though you have Spring Training and all that, pitching in a big league game when it counts is different. It's going to take a little bit of time for him to be the JJ that everybody knows. The guy that spots the ball where he wants to with velocity. It's going to take time, but the sooner the better for us, obviously.
"I know JJ is going to get better. I know he's going to get better because he's a whole lot better than that. I expect his next outing to be really, really good."
The best news for the Marlins is that Johnson feels fine.
"I felt really, really good," he said. "In Spring Training, everything felt good. I kind of took a step back the first start, but this start was good, just a bad result. I made some good pitches and just didn't come out on the right side."
The third inning was filled with what-ifs. Juan Pierre singled with one out and then was called safe stealing second. The replay seemed to indicate that he was probably out.
"It kind of snowballed from there," Johnson said.
Placido Polanco followed with a comebacker that bounced off the bottom of Johnson's foot and rolled into shallow left field. Pierre scored and Polanco went all the way to second on the throw to the plate.
That was the first of a sequence of four straight at-bats where the Phillies hitter singled and then advanced to second on either a play at the plate, an error or a stolen base.
"It seemed like there was somebody on second base the whole inning," Johnson said. "It's tough. I don't think I've given up a ball to the wall or anything like that. Things are just, like, the opposite of last year. You just have to keep going out there and battling. I have to just keep going after guys. Balls found some holes. I felt good out there. It's just that crazy stuff happened."
Ten of the 11 hits he gave up were singles.
A year ago, Johnson had a 1.64 ERA and had allowed just 39 hits in 60 1/3 innings while striking out 56 when he was shut down. This season, after two starts, he's allowed 21 hits in 9 2/3 innings with five strikeouts and an 8.38 ERA.
Johnson was offered several explanations for his problems Wednesday night, but rejected each one like a batter fouling off pitches after he gets two strikes on him.
Too much rest? "I don't think so," he said.
Too much turmoil surrounding Guillen's suspension? "Not at all," he said.
A blown call on the Pierre steal? "That's part of the game," he said.
The chilly weather? "That didn't really bother me. It wasn't bad at all," he said.
His fastball was mostly in the 92-93 mph range, short of the 96-97 he throws when he's at his best. But that could also be written off as a result of missing so much time. Velocity is usually the last thing to come around for power pitchers in Spring Training.
"I think he's going to get better. I know he's going to get better," Cora said.
Charlie Manuel agreed.
"This is his second game he's pitched this short season," the Phillies manager said. "He'll get his stuff down. This wasn't the guy you usually see. He'll get there."
Johnson's demeanor suggested that he, too, believes there's no reason for panic.
"It wasn't terrible, that's for sure," he said.
And if he's dominant again in his next start Tuesday at Marlins Park against the Cubs, what's happened in his first two outings will be remembered as a false alarm. If it's remembered at all.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.