"Johnson's got the best slider I've ever seen from a left-handed pitcher," said the Padres' Todd Walker, who has seen a few over 11 Major League seasons in both leagues.
Yep, Walker was referring to Tyler Johnson, a 25-year-old St. Louis Cardinals rookie left-hander, and not Randy Johnson, the legendary lefty who has a bit of a slider himself.
Tyler Johnson is in many ways a poster boy for what was supposed to be a shaky St. Louis bullpen in this National League Division Series, at least compared to the solid San Diego Padres. Cards closer Jason Isringhausen is out because of injury and in his place is rookie Adam Wainwright, who is being set up by, among others, rookies Johnson and Josh Kinney.
But so far, so good for Johnson & Co., who combined in Games 1 and 2 to pitch 6 2/3 scoreless innings with two hits and 10 strikeouts. Johnson has appeared in both games, working 1 1/3 innings in relief of winning pitcher Chris Carpenter in Game 1 with two strikeouts, and whiffing both batters he faced in the eighth inning of Game 2.
"Our bullpen is unbelievable," said Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who has dominated the series with his bat while the Cardinals have jumped to a 2-0 series lead. "We do know we have young kids out there but they can pitch. And they got good stuff."
Born in Columbia, Mo., and raised in Southern California, it's fitting that Johnson is playing a key role in a Cardinals-Padres NLDS. The Cardinals drafted him in the 34th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft and he was a fastball-curveball pitcher until 2005, when he suddenly discovered that with a few slight adjustments he was able to unleash a killer slider. It has become his "out" pitch.
"I always was pretty dominant with my curveball," said Johnson, who has a career 3.06 ERA in 194 Minor League games including 40 starts. "That was my pitch, my go-to pitch. It's kind of just a slightly different arm action and hand grip, and it's pretty comfortable."
After starting the year at Triple-A Memphis, he was 2-4 with a 4.95 ERA in 56 regular-season appearances with the Cardinals -- "Not the best rookie year ever," he says -- and one that ended on bit of a down note.
Johnson limited left-handed hitters to a .221 average this season with three home runs, including two big ones during the pennant race. Milwaukee's Geoff Jenkins snapped a scoreless tie with a ninth-inning solo home run at Miller Park on Sept. 20, sparking a seven-game Cardinals losing streak that nearly lost the team the NL Central crown. Three days later, on Sept. 23, Johnson surrendered another walk-off homer to a left-hander, Houston's Luke Scott.
Jenkins hit a slider, Scott turned on a fastball. It was time for a confidence check.
"There's always that point when things go bad that you have to step back and say, 'You know what? I can do this. I've done it before.'" Johnson said. "I feel really good right now, confident."
"It's a big time of year to start getting all that stuff together, being able to come through and help the team win," Johnson said. "Just throwing strikes has been my main thing. If I can throw strikes, I'm pretty sure I can be consistent out there."
"He's gaining experience," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "For any young pitcher, if they're talented, then with experience they're going to be more consistent. That's what you see. You see him throwing more consistent strikes. His stuff is the same."
The series returns to Busch Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and the Cardinals can close it out behind starter Jeff Suppan. With off-days following each of the first two games, both bullpens will enter the weekend fully rested.
Padres hitters have combined for 10 hits and one run in the first two games of the series. Some wonder whether the San Diego bats are due to break out and the young St. Louis arms are due for a letdown.
Johnson is not among them.
"It's kind of in one ear and out the other," he said. "We know we have a great bullpen. We have a lot of stuff to learn and look for, too, but we have a lot of veterans helping us out. I think we've all got a pretty good idea of what we're doing out there."
"My confidence is there. I'm not going to really think about [being up 2-0.] I'm just going to look forward and get them on Saturday."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less