MLB

Josh Johnson key to Marlins' success

FOXSports.com previews the Marlins' upcoming season.
FOXSports.com previews the Marlins' upcoming season.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Most star players coming off an injury give a clichéd answer when asked if they feel a special obligation to their team.

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I’ve got to take care of myself, do everything I can to stay healthy. If I do that, everything else will work itself out.

Right-hander Josh Johnson certainly shares those sentiments as he prepares to start the first game at the Marlins’ new downtown ballpark in Miami on Wednesday night.

Except he takes it a step further.

“I don’t want to see my teammates go through what they went through last year again,” Johnson says.

“That was the worst part. I’ve thought about it all offseason. Watching them go out there and not being able to go out there with them, it absolutely killed me.”

Johnson, 28, did not pitch after May 16 last season due to inflammation in his pitching shoulder. The night of his final start, the Marlins were 24-16, one game out of first place in the NL East. They went 48-74 the rest of the way, finishing in last place, 30 games behind.

This is a different team now, bolstered by the arrival of manager Ozzie Guillen, the return of third baseman Hanley Ramirez from his own shoulder problem, the free-agent additions of shortstop Jose Reyes, left-hander Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell.

STARTING POINT

A mound of evidence places these pitchers at the top of the heap. Who are the all-time best starters?

Yet, for all the changes the Marlins have made, all of the excitement as they enter their new park, another injury to Johnson would all but ruin their chances in 2012.

Since 2008, Johnson has a 2.64 ERA in 453 innings, including a 1.64 ERA in 60 1/3 innings last season. He is that dominant an ace, and the Marlins lack depth beyond their top five starters.

You get the idea. So does Johnson.

He spent the offseason working with Tim Soder, a physical therapist in Las Vegas, where Johnson and his family now live. Soder came recommended by former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. Johnson’s older son, Cash, 4, plays soccer and attends school with Thomas’ son, Frank III. Johnson and his wife, Heidi, also have a younger son, Cruz, 15 months.

Johnson says about 20 major and minor leaguers worked with Soder last offseason. Soder’s past clients include Thomas and Greg Maddux, and his current major leaguers include Rays right-hander James Shields and Marlins left-handed reliever Mike Dunn

Initially, Johnson planned to work with Soder 2 to 3 days a week, then go lift somewhere else. But the pitcher found Soder’s emphasis on manual resistance to be more than sufficient.

“I had to wake up at 4 o’clock on Tuesdays and Fridays and 4:30 on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” Johnson says. “We were getting up early, getting it done and I’d be home in time to take my kids to school.

“Everything we did was for the shoulder. Everything was all about that.”

Johnson never underwent surgery last season – good news, considering the poor success rates of pitchers who try to return from shoulder operations.

Yet, he says the constant uncertainty made the experience worse than his recovery from Tommy John surgery in Aug. 2007, a recovery he completed in only 11 months.

“With Tommy John, that first week is really hard,” Johnson says. “Your elbow is three times the size it’s supposed to be. You have those thoughts, Will I ever throw again, all that stuff? But after the swelling goes down, then it’s pretty normal. You have a plan. You have everything set out for pretty much the next 11 months or so.

“With the other thing, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing four days from now. I had no idea if I was going to throw, wasn’t going to throw.”

MUSIC TO THEIR EARS

Closers carefully select the tune that accompanies them from the bullpen to the mound. See MLB's playlist.

It turned out that he didn’t throw again, at least not in a major-league game. The difference in him this spring, though, was evident. Johnson went 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA in the Grapefruit League. Marlins catcher John Buck says the pitcher even found a higher gear at times, describing it as, “Whooom! Whooom! Whooom!”

Last season?

Johnson called it, “very hard to watch, the ultimate frustration.”

This season?

Johnson is healthy again, and beyond excited.

“I’m ecstatic,” he says.

Tagged: Marlins, John Buck, Josh Johnson

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