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Richard Justice

Johnson's availability vital to Marlins' hopes

Justice: Johnson's availability vital to Marlins

Johnson's availability vital to Marlins' hopes
JUPITER, Fla. -- So just how important is having a healthy, happy, dominant Josh Johnson to the Marlins?

"I hate to put everything on him," outfielder Logan Morrison said, "but him going out there every fifth day as our stopper is real important."

The Marlins say their No. 1 guy is as important to them as, say, Justin Verlander is to the Tigers. He's the guy who stops losing streaks, sets a tone, elevates a franchise.

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"I think he's very crucial," catcher John Buck said. "He could be the best pitcher in the league. Losing him is like the Phillies losing (Roy) Halladay. Without a doubt, we need him to stay healthy and really make us contenders."

In 2010, when Johnson was last healthy for a full season, he led the National League in ERA and was named to a second straight All-Star team. Last season when he went down with a sore shoulder on May 16, the Marlins were eight games over .500 and a game out of first place in the NL East.

They promptly lost 25 of 33, including 11 in a row at one point, and settled into last place. The Marlins are reborn this season with a new stadium and new uniforms and an assortment of new faces. Yet it's a very familiar face that could go long way toward leading them back to the playoffs.

"I'd say he's vital," Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said.

That's why Monday was such an important day. For the first time in 294 days, Johnson walked to the mound and threw 41 pitches without pain. He had his 94 mph fastball back, and also the movement on his slider.

This was the first step the Marlins hope will end with Johnson throwing the first regular-season pitch against the Cardinals in their new stadium on April 4. So far, so good.

"He's one of the top pitchers in the National League and the leader of our rotation," Beinfest said. "I think we felt it last year when we lost him for the last four months. There's only so many pitchers where every fifth day you think, 'Wow, we've got a really good chance to win.' He's one of those guys. For us to be successful, we're going to need him to be back and successful."

Johnson, 28, has had some other disappointments along the way in his seven seasons. He blew out his right elbow in 2007 and missed most of two seasons. He averaged almost 200 innings in 2009 and 2010, and was so important that the Marlins rewarded him with a four-year, $39-million contract.

That contract symbolized his importance to the franchise and also how the construction of a new stadium would change its ability to do business. Into all this steps a healthy Josh Johnson, all 6-7 of him.

"I'm feeling good and hungry to pitch a full season and go to battle with the guys," he said. "It's an exciting time around here."

When he got hurt last season, he experienced an array of emotions. At times, he was unable to even watch the Marlins on television.

"I couldn't be out there with my teammates," he said. "That was the worst part. Seeing them go through that slide right after I went on the disabled list was the hardest part. To see them go through that was not fun.

"It was really hard. It seemed like we were down in the first couple of innings every game in that stretch. Sometimes I'd watch one inning. Sometimes I wouldn't watch the game at all. I'd look at the score in the fourth or fifth inning to stay sane. It was good to have my wife and kids around for family time."

In the beginning, though, he did what competitors almost always do. He tried to ignore the pain in his right shoulder.

"During the course of the season, you're going to have aches and pains and things like that," he said. "That's what I thought it was. I finally realized it was more than that and had to shut it down."

As Morrison said, "He has pitched through more than you guys know. He's a gamer. There's no doubt about that."

He's hoping, again, that the bad stuff is behind him, and that this special season will have the appropriate finishing touch. The Marlins have spent their first 19 years working toward getting their own home, and with it finally opening, they barely resemble the team Johnson began his career with in 2005.

"I've been hearing about a new stadium -- or moving -- ever since I signed to play pro ball here," he said. "I thought, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' Now we have a plan, and we know exactly where we're going."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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