Marlins' season may hinge on health of ace Johnson
JUPITER, Fla. (AP)
He won't be pitching; he's playing golf in the Honda Classic pro-am.
''It'll be a little nerve-racking, that's for sure,'' Johnson said Friday. ''I can throw in front of 100,000 people, but when you have a club in your hands, it's a totally different story. You see videos of guys hitting balls into the crowd. I'll be, `Please, just stand back.'''
Johnson, who sports a 3.7 handicap, received an invitation to play next Wednesday in his first pro-am at nearby PGA National. The Marlins agreed to give him the time off, and then it will be back to preparing for their most anticipated season since their expansion year in 1993.
The Marlins have a new name, a new ballpark and four new All-Stars. But success this season may hinge on the health of holdover Johnson.
It's enough to give a guy butterflies.
''I hate to put everything on him,'' teammate Logan Morrison said. ''But him being healthy and going out there every fifth day as our stopper is huge.''
Johnson made only nine starts last year before right shoulder inflammation ended his season. The Marlins were 24-16 when he went to the sideline; they finished 72-90 and last in the NL East.
Pitching depth is better this year, thanks to the additions of left-hander Mark Buehrle and right-hander Carlos Zambrano. They join a potentially formidable rotation that also includes Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez.
But the staff looks much stronger if it starts with Johnson.
''He's a stud,'' said Buehrle, a four-time All-Star himself. ''It's going to be exciting to sit on the bench and watch him go out there and dominate. When he's healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball.''
When healthy, Johnson is well worth the $13.75 million he'll make this year. He said he's 100 percent, and his first two throwing sessions at spring training have gone well. But he knows doubts about his durability persist, because he has thrown 200 innings only once in a six-year career.
The two-time All-Star led the NL in ERA in 2010, and since joining the Marlins' rotation in 2006, his record is 48-23 (.676). But reconstructive elbow surgery limited him to 18 starts in 2007-08, and his shoulder problem dates to 2010, when he was shut out down for the final three weeks of the season.
Johnson pitched brilliantly at the start of last year, allowing only 13 hits in his first five games and flirting with a no-hitter three times.
''Everything felt so good, and everything was clicking,'' he recalled. ''I felt like I could throw anytime at any time. Then it came to a screeching halt.''
He was tied for the major-league lead with a 1.64 ERA when the shoulder sent him to the disabled list in mid-May. While he initially hoped to be sidelined only a couple of weeks, the inflammation persisted for months.
''I was confused and frustrated,'' he said. ''I didn't know what was going on. Nobody knew what was going on.''
A new set of exercises finally eliminated the soreness. He was throwing off a mound before the end of the season and is now on schedule to start the first game in the Marlins' new ballpark on April 4.
He'll be nibbling at the corners, whereas at the Honda pro-am he'll aim right down the middle. He began playing golf his senior year in high school at Oklahoma at his dad's suggestion.
''I hit one good shot and was hooked,'' he said. ''I've never had a lesson. I kind of taught myself and hit balls and watched the Golf Channel.''
The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Johnson takes full advantage of his big frame, averaging more than 300 yards off the tee.
''He's got game,'' said batterymate and golfing partner John Buck. ''He hits the ball a mile.''
Johnson plays a couple of times a week in the winter, and once every two or three weeks during the season. He has played PGA National about 15 times and has also played other top courses, including Pine Valley in New Jersey.
Johnson shot a 77 at Cypress Point in California early this year, although stage fright was an issue at first.
''We had a frost delay, so there were 30 or 40 people standing behind the tee box,'' he said. ''The Stanford women's golf team was standing there. Condoleezza Rice was standing there. The guys I was playing with made me go first. I was like, `You've got to be kidding me.'''
His drive landed in the middle of the fairway. Fans watching Johnson at the Honda next week will probably be safe.