On Wednesday morning, the Blue Jays' buses had long since departed for the Grapefruit League game, leaving behind the pitchers not scheduled to work against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota. At the spring training complex, Josh Johnson got his work done before taking his blonde-haired sons, Cash, 5, and Cruz, 2, into the outfield for a little play time.
Cash wore the glove, and Cruz got to swing the tiny blue bat. "Watch the ball," Johnson said, before tossing one to Cruz. One of Johnson's advantages over major-league hitters as a 6-foot-7 power right-hander is his "excellent downhill angle and leverage," to quote a preseason magazine. So imagine his son's vantage point – Johnson is 6 foot 7, and Cruz comes up to his kneecaps. No matter. Cruz smacked a comebacker past dad, and immediately chased after the ball to beat his brother to it.
All is new for the Johnson family this spring, except for the expectations on dad. Josh had spent his entire career with the Florida/Miami Marlins before the 12-player blockbuster trade in November made him a Blue Jay and cost his older son a day-to-day relationship with Giancarlo Stanton; Cash adored the Marlins outfielder. Last spring around this time, Stanton told a local newspaper about Cash hiding shyly from him in the clubhouse: "Right when I leave, he'd go 'Daddy, he said hi to me.' He always has candy so I'm like, 'Where's my candy? You didn't get me any?' And the next thing I know, I have four suckers in my locker."
Johnson and his wife Heidi sneaked into Toronto into December to secure a downtown condominium for the family in advance of the 2013 season. Stability matters. If all goes according to the optimistic script, as the Jays compete for a playoff spot, Johnson will contend for the American League Cy Young Award and at season's end, become eligible for a nine-figure contract as a free agent.
General manager Alex Anthopolous addressed the club's primary weakness this off-season by adding a trio of erstwhile aces to the starting rotation. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey led the National League in innings pitched last season and won the NL Cy Young. Mark Buehrle, the speed-changing lefty traded with Johnson from Miami, was a four-time all-star and World Series winner with the Chicago White Sox. Then there's Johnson, with the potential to be the most effective shut-down pitcher in the Jays rotation since Roger Clemens won back-to-back Cy Youngs in 1997 and 1998. If timing is everything, hitters will be in a warp.
Johnson had Tommy John ligament transplant surgery in August of 2007, returning in 2008 to go 7-1 in 14 starts, following in 2009 with a 15-5 record and in 2010, reaching a peak with an 8-2 record in a 16-game span. He compiled a 1.62 earned-run average in 112 1/3 innings and 10 strikeouts for every walk during that streak, and finished the season with an 11-6 record and 2.30 ERA.
"I could do anything I wanted with the ball," Johnson says.
The following year, 2011, he started as dominantly but wound up missing all but nine starts with a shoulder strain. Rather than risk surgery, he worked in the off-season with a trainer in Las Vegas, rising at 4 a.m. several mornings each week to adhere to a strict schedule. The work paid off. He would be awarded the honour of starting the first game in Miami's new stadium last April.
Catcher John Buck left the Jays as a free agent after 2010, and caught Johnson these past two seasons in Miami.
"He doesn't like to be a chatty Cathy," Buck said recently, in the New York Mets camp at Port St. Lucie, Fla. "He's pretty educated – more than the hitters, he knows himself, he's that type. He knows his strengths, and believes in what he's doing."
Now 29 years old, Johnson has lost a mile an hour or two off a fastball that once hit 94 mph, compensating by reintroducing a curveball last year and altering his changeup this spring, as recommended by pitching coach Pete Walker. "The first day I was throwing it 40 feet and the next time over the catcher's head," he says, with a laugh. "But I thought, why not throw it in spring game? I got a couple of swings-and-misses and it's going good now. You always want to make it better."
He had a similar experience with the slider years ago. Today the pitch has become a performance marker. When in a groove, he can throw it with equal effectiveness to left– or right-handed hitters, altering the degree of break to counter his fastball.
Johnson has matured as a pro to the point that he speaks almost sub-consciously in analytical terms, in the manner of a pitching coach. But once on the mound, he approaches the sport altogether differently.
"For me it's more feel," he says. "If I start watching video, I start thinking about things and that's what I don't want to do. I just go out on the mound, and feel it."
This spring, so far so good toward his spring goal of issuing no walks. He's feeling it.
And right now, he's feeling it. His spring goal was to issue no walks. So far, he's on target.