PORT CHARLOTTE – For two innings in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, Josh Johnson felt and looked as good as he did at the start of last season, when he was arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
After walking two and needing 18 pitches to get through the first inning, Johnson needed 17 pitches to get through the next two, as he threw 13 were strikes and set down the Rays in order.
"That was where I wanted to be. Going right after guys, throwing quality pitches. That is what I have been looking for all spring, those two innings," said Johnson, who pitched five scoreless innings, allowing three hits while walking five, with four strikeouts and a wild pitch.
Johnson said he hopes to have four or five innings like that in his final start of spring, then string together eight when the season begins.
Johson lowered his ERA to 1.62 this spring in five starts, and he has 15 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings pitched.
"A little bit of everything." Johnson said about Sunday's outing at Charlotte Sports Park. "Some good, some bad, some ugly, but I got the pitch count up and got my adrenaline going that last inning. It was good."
That adrenaline came when Johnson walked Elliot Johnson to start the inning, and Sean Rodriguez followed that with a single on a hit-and-run that put Rays at first and third with no outs. Rodriguez then stole second, putting men on second and third with no outs and the top of the Rays lineup coming to the plate.
"Then I just had to bear down," Johnson said. "Go for that strikeout and get that adrenaline flowing in the middle of the game," Johnson said.
And he did bear down, striking out Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyces before getting Evan Longoria to hit into an inning-ending fly to right field.
"Good to get that feeling again," Johnson said.
"He is throwing the ball very good. Good job once again. One more [spring] start, then he goes out for the money," Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said, referring to Johnson pitching on opening day April 4.
Making the fix: Johnson said his mechanics were off in the first inning Sunday, and that is when catcher John Buck told him to get his hand out of his glove on time.
"Sometimes you need little reminders like that," Johnson said.
"I knew that he was out of whack, because every time his rhythm is wrong I can see a lot of his chest and the spin of the ball will change," Buck said.
After making the adjustment, Johnson had his the two shut-down innings.
"I told him to concentrate on really getting the timing with your hands. When his hands are breaking at the right time, his whole body seems to balance out," Buck said.
Changeup and curve: Johnson has relied mainly on his fastball and slider in his seven year career.
He started to work in more changeups and curveballs last season before he was injured, and is getting them back into his repertoire.
"We threw a lot [changeups and curveballs] today. My slider was my fourth pitch today," Johnson said, adding that 60 to 70 percent of the curveballs he threw Sunday "were quality pitches."
"I know I am getting a lot more confidence with it," Buck said about the new pitches, "and if we keep getting results like we did today he'll buy into it more."
Good slider causes blister: Johnson said when he is throwing his slider right, he gets a blister on his middle finger where his thumb scrapes against it.
When he looked at the blister in the fifth inning, trainer Sean Cunningham and pitching coach Randy St. Claire both headed for the mound.
Johnson tried to wave them away.
"It is something that happens all the time," Johnson said. "It is going to keep happening."
Johnson stayed in the game, and St. Claire and Guillen both said after the game it was not a concern.
Back in Jupiter: Playing in a minor league game, Giancarlo Stanton was 2-for-3 with a double; Logan Morrison was 0-for-2 with one run and one walk; and Greg Dobbs was 2-for-2 with three runs and a home run.