04/14/11 6:02 PM EST
JJ's new curve leaves hitters guessing
By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com
The wrinkle Marlins ace Josh Johnson is showing is a knee-buckling curveball.
It was an effective weapon for him on Wednesday in his quest for a no-hitter.
Johnson was envisioning a historic night at Turner Field until Freddie Freeman's one-out double in the eighth foiled his quest to make the record books. It was the lone hit he allowed in Florida's 5-1 win over the Braves.
Early in Spring Training, Johnson hinted that he may have something up his sleeve for hitters during the season.
As if batters didn't have enough to worry about with Johnson's 95-plus mph fastball and power slider. Now, they have to deal with the 6-foot-7 right-hander changing speeds.
Johnson isn't tossing too many curveballs, but he is showing it just enough to give hitters something to think about.
It was mixed into his game plan on Wednesday night when he befuddled the Braves. Of Johnson's 109 pitches, seven were curveballs.
"All the credit goes to JJ," said Hanley Ramirez, who drove in the Marlins' first run Wednesday. "He did what he was supposed to do. He went deep into the game and gave our bullpen a little bit of a rest."
Johnson has thrown no-hit ball through at least six innings twice in his first three starts. On Opening Day, the Mets' first hit was Willie Harris' double to open the seventh.
In his second start, against the Nationals, the first hit he yielded was a one-out homer in the fourth to Jayson Werth.
As Johnson kept logging outs Wednesday, the Marlins were bracing for what could have been the fifth no-hitter in franchise history.
"Everybody was praying for it in the infield and the outfield," Ramirez said. "At the end of the night, we won. We got that win."
Getting Johnson the early lead off Braves starter Tim Hudson set the tone.
"Everybody knows how JJ is when he gets the lead," Ramirez said. "When he gets the lead, he's even tougher. He was pounding the strike zone. I think he's got a new pitch now. He's unbelievable."
Johnson actually has thrown the "new pitch" already this year.
On Opening Day, Johnson froze David Wright with an 80-mph curveball in the first inning for a strikeout.
He's sprinkled it into his first three starts, and it was effective on Wednesday.
Freeman's double to left on Wednesday came when he took a 95-mph fastball to the opposite field.
Johnson's slider is arguably the best of any starter in the National League.
He's also worked on his changeup.
The reason those two pitches are important is because Johnson is striving to slow the ball down. He has the capability of throwing so hard that the hitters dig in for pitches in the 91-97 mph range.
Johnson's slider has been clocked at 91 mph, but it's most effective at about 85 mph, because the change of speed makes it harder for hitters to adjust. One of Johnson's nine strikeouts against the Braves on Wednesday was an 82-mph slider to Martin Prado.
"It's a whole different guy," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said of Johnson. "You can't sit up there saying this guy is coming at me hard. I've got to get [my swing] going. Most hitters, they stay geared for the fastball and they try to adjust to the softer stuff."
Now, he's throwing a curveball in the 78-80 mph, making him even more imposing.
"It's been getting better and better, and I'm starting to locate it a little more," Johnson said.
Johnson has picked up some pointers on throwing the breaking ball from teammate Ricky Nolasco, one of the better curveball pitchers in the NL.
"I've been talking with Ricky," Johnson said. "He's a good one to talk to about it. It's just something for hitters to see [going] slow, and maybe my fastball will look a little harder."