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Johnson rebounds with strong Fall League start

Pierce Johnson might have scuffled during his first five starts in the Arizona Fall League, but things clicked for the right-hander on Thursday as he scattered five hits over five scoreless innings as Mesa fell to Peoria, 1-0.

After struggling with his control in previous starts, the Cubs' No. 7 prospect appeared to have no problems pounding the zone as he struck out four batters and issued just one walks, with 46 of his 64 pitches going for strikes.

"Just throwing strikes, really," Johnson said of what went differently. "[Catcher Cael Brockmeyer] did a great job behind the plate and my defense made some big plays.

"[Mesa pitching coach Steve Connelly] is a great guy, and we've been working on some things mechanically. Today, things just decided to click for me."

Johnson was able to induce six swings and misses with his fastball, four with his cutter and at least one each with his curveball, changeup and slider. Meanwhile, of the 10 balls put in play against the 24-year-old right-hander, seven resulted in ground-ball outs.

Video: Top Prospects: Pierce Johnson, RHP, Cubs

"The big thing I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes and had guys out in front," Johnson said.

Johnson's outing certainly was a step in the right direction. He had allowed at least two earned runs in each of his five starts for Mesa, and was entering Thursday's contest after failing to complete the first inning his last time out.

Selected by the Cubs with the No. 43 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, Johnson spent the first two-plus months of the season in extended spring training as he worked his way back from a back injury. After he finally was assigned to Double-A Tennessee -- where he had spent most of the 2014 season -- Johnson made up for the lost time by posting a 2.08 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 95 innings across 16 starts for the Smokies.

"I had a lot of confidence going back there this season. Obviously I knew the whole coaching staff and how they work, and a lot of the players there were guys I had been drafted with and come up through the system with," Johnson said of his return to the Southern League.

"Injuries are what they are, but it was actually a blessing in disguise. It gave me a chance to work on my changeup, and now that's a pitch I can go to. It's been huge a thing for me," he added.

Johnson's five scoreless frames lowered his Fall League ERA to 6.10, and he's fanned 15 batters compared to 12 walks in that span.

Although time is running out on the schedule, the right-hander hopes to build off his successful start the rest of the way, putting him in a good spot for the start of the 2016 season.

"I'm just looking to build even more confidence going into next season. Pitching is mostly confidence, and being able to go in there and throw strikes with every pitch will make or break you. So I'm going into Spring Training next year trying to win a spot," said Johnson.

For Peoria, Braves No. 7 prospect Lucas Sims continued to impress in his fourth Fall League start (fifth appearance), allowing just two hits while striking out four batters in three scoreless innings.

The 21-year-old right-hander has been one of the top pitchers in the AFL this year, posting a 1.93 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 14 innings. More recently, Sims has not yielded a run in his last nine innings spanning three appearances.

Catcher Chance Sisco walked it off for Peoria with a double in the ninth inning. The Orioles' No. 8 prospect finished the game 2-for-4 and is now hitting .244 in the Fall League.

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.