Johnson feels rejuvenated, looks to the future

Johnson feels rejuvenated, looks to the future

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It makes perfect sense that Padres catcher Rob Johnson holds Dr. Marc Philippon in high regard after he performed surgeries to repair labrum tears on each of Johnson's hips in October 2009

And you can bet Johnson has plenty of praise for the Seattle Mariners training staff, who worked with him during a laborious rehabilitation period to get him to the point where he could squat and play again.

But as far as Johnson is concerned, the highest commendation belongs to but one person: his wife, Kristan, who was responsible for helping her husband during the difficult days that followed his surgeries.

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"It was a crazy surgery ... I couldn't move. I couldn't even lift up my leg," Johnson said the other day, sitting in front of his clubhouse locker. "My wife was incredible. She was my saving angel. At the time, our son was a 1-year-old, so she had double duty because I was like a baby, too.

"It was almost like learning to walk again."

Johnson, who was traded to the Padres in December, is in camp trying to win the backup catching job behind Nick Hundley.

This new opportunity comes after the 27-year-old Johnson spent the last seven seasons in the Mariners' system. It also comes with a clean bill of health on Johnson's hips, something he's been looking forward to for a long time.

"I'm here today and I feel really good," Johnson said.

It's certainly been a while.

Johnson started feeling pain in his hips in May 2009 while with the Mariners. He tried to fight through it, even though it pained him greatly to do the things required of catchers: squat, move laterally and block balls in the dirt.

"It was more when I was blocking side to side and not having the mobility in my hips to move side to side down in a squat," Johnson said. "I wasn't out there making excuses. In your mind, when you know you can get to balls off the plate, and you can't do it ... that is frustrating."

Johnson, a career .271 hitter in the Minor Leagues with a reputation as a top defensive catcher, hit just .213 with the Mariners in 80 games But he resisted to say much or complain. A native of Montana, Johnson is all sorts of Big Sky tough.

"You just grind. You get it done. That's my mentality," Johnson said. "I don't go in the training room too often. For me, you do what you have to do to get on the field and play. It was frustrating at the time but I just accepted it."

After the season, Johnson had surgery on his left hip in Vail, Colo., by Philippon, who is a renowned hip specialist. Three weeks later, Philippon did the right hip. If that wasn't enough, Johnson later flew to Seattle to have surgery for a tear in his left wrist.

The 2010 season was essentially a lost one for Johnson, who came back sooner than he probably should have. He hit .191 in 61 games for Seattle and was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma in August. Johnson was designated for assignment on Dec. 13 and traded eight days later.

"I fought really hard to get back, they [Mariners medical staff] did an excellent job ... but I wasn't the same," Johnson said. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, or get into the stances I wanted to get in. I think it probably should have taken eight months to recover. But I came back in three or four."

Johnson thinks his hip issues had to do with mechanical issues that date back to his days in Montana, where there is no high school baseball. Johnson was mostly self-taught and learned new catching mechanics at subsequent stops at Saddleback Junior College and then later at the University of Houston.

"I think the biggest thing for me, coming from Montana, was that I was never taught a certain way to catch," Johnson said. "I didn't really know what I was doing. I went to California and switched [catching mechanics], then went to Houston and switched again.

"I think that doing that ... going down, blocking balls, all that switching, just grinding out different stances, caught up with me."

Johnson, who has one Minor League option remaining, has been sidelined this week with a sore side. He could get in his first game by the weekend if all goes well. But San Diego manager Bud Black likes what he's seen from Johnson during bullpen sessions.

"I really like the defensive side and the way he sets up and presents a target," Black said. "I like what I see and what I'm hearing from out pitchers. He works well with pitchers, something that is important to us."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.