Taking baby steps, JJ gets off on right foot

Taking baby steps, JJ gets off on right foot

JUPITER, Fla. -- It was like old times for Josh Johnson on Monday afternoon.

The Marlins' ace made a successful, and more importantly, pain-free return after throwing 41 pitches in 1 2/3 scoreless innings.

"When he's throwing his offspeed pitches, and they have bite to them," Marlins catcher John Buck said, "When he's throwing his slider down in the dirt. When he's able to throw his fastball down, that right there, that's happiness in Miami-land."

Johnson's road to recovery is being taken in baby steps.

Against the Cardinals, in a game the Marlins held on for a 4-3 win at Roger Dean Stadium, Johnson's outing was a big step forward.

If all goes according to plan, Johnson will be Miami's Opening Night starter on April 4 against St. Louis at Marlins Park.

To get him regular-season ready, the hard-throwing right-hander must get through Spring Training healthy. In 2011, his season was cut short after nine games due to right shoulder inflammation.

Monday marked his first appearance against another team since he faced the Mets last May 16 at Citi Field.

The plan was to not go more than 45 pitches with Johnson. The ace was taken out with two outs and the bases loaded in the second, having thrown 25 of his 41 pitches for strikes. His velocity was not an issue, as he topped out at 94 mph.

"Great outing," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He threw the ball very well -- pain-free. That's a very, very good beginning. This kid has spent a lot of time to try to get back and pitch in this game like he did today.

"I'm excited. Everybody is excited, but he's the one who should be more happy than anybody else. He's the one. The hard work is paying off.

"Hopefully we keep him on track. Obviously, we're going to monitor him very carefully. But I'm very excited to see this kid back on the mound."

Low-key, Johnson tried not to get too amped up thinking about his start. One diversion he used on Sunday was to attend the Honda Classic at PGA National, which is down the road from Roger Dean Stadium.

An avid golfer, Johnson was following Tiger Woods for a while. He also was not a stranger at the tournament. Last Wednesday, he participated in the Pro-Am event at the course.

With the Marlins' profile being raised, more people are recognizing the 6-foot-7 right-hander, who is a two-time All-Star.

"You think about that all the time," Johnson said of returning after a long layoff. "What's it going to feel like? Yesterday, I went to the golf tournament to get my mind off it."

At the Honda Classic, a couple of caddies noted that they had Johnson on their fantasy teams last year.

"I told them, 'Sorry,'" said Johnson.

Against the Cardinals, Johnson worked a perfect first inning. He started off by retiring Skip Schumaker on a fly ball to center field. He then struck out Jon Jay looking on a 93-mph fastball. The inning ended when the right-hander struck out Matt Holliday on a changeup.

Johnson's game plan was to work on his changeup, as well as spot his fastball.

Holliday, bemused that Johnson would mix in a nasty offspeed pitch in the first inning, had a light exchange with Buck after striking out.

"Really? The first at-bat of Spring Training?" Buck said, recanting the are-you-kidding-me conversation.

Said Holliday: "He threw me a good 3-2 changeup, which the first day of spring, I didn't really expect."

The second inning was a bit more challenging. After getting two quick outs, Matt Adams singled and Tyler Greene doubled past Hanley Ramirez at third base. Daniel Descalso worked out a walk, loading the bases.

Greene's hot liner was the only ball remotely playable for Ramirez, who was making his debut as Miami's third baseman.

"[Ramirez] said he saw it and it looked like it was going to be lower, and it just kind of snuck up on him," Johnson said. "He said, 'During the season, I'll get that. I promise.' I said, 'I believe you.'"

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.