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Padres confident JJ will bounce back from unlucky '13

Johnson seeking return to dominant form after pitching through injuries last season

PEORIA, Ariz. -- There was nothing restrained about Darren Balsley's reaction to the news that the team had signed free-agent pitcher Josh Johnson in November.

"I was very excited," said Balsley, the Padres longtime pitching coach. "We've seen him a lot of times in the past. He was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball -- period."

Balsley doesn't have to think far back to remember just how good Johnson was in 2010 with the Marlins, when he struck out 12 in a complete-game victory over the Padres. Neither does manager Bud Black.

"That whole year he was rolling," Black said of Johnson, who led the National League with a 2.30 ERA in 2010.

This spring, Balsley, Black and the Padres will try to help the 30-year-old right-hander return to old form, the one that served him to well with the Marlins and the one that was waylaid during a trying season with the Blue Jays, as he couldn't escape injury or a 6.20 ERA.

Calling his 2013 trying might be selling it short. Johnson had another term for it the other day, standing in front of his locker in the Padres' clubhouse -- miserable.

"Miserable might be an understatement," Johnson said. "I think it was worse for my teammates than me. They know that I'm out there trying. But to go out there that many starts in a row, it was like two innings and eight runs on the board, I had no idea what was going on. It was crazy."

And frustrating to no end, as Johnson landed on the disabled list twice, first with inflammation in his right triceps and later in August for a strained right forearm that ended his season and eventually led him to October surgery to remove bone spurs and loose bodies in the elbow.

"I wasn't getting good extension. Balls were flat, balls were up. You've got to be able to find that middle ground and go with that," he said. "I couldn't do that."

Johnson signed early in the offseason after narrowing his choices to the Giants and Padres. He signed an $8 million deal with the possibility of another $1.25 million if he makes 26 starts. The team holds a club option of $4 million for 2015 if Johnson is unable to make seven starts this season.

At this point, though, there's little concern that Johnson won't be a big part of the starting rotation. He has been throwing bullpen sessions and has worked with Balsley on some subtle changes that they hope can lead him back to his dominant form from 2010.

"Physically and mentally he's in a good spot," Black said of Johnson.

Balsley doesn't think it will take much to get Johnson back to his old form.

"He had the one mediocre year, but everyone has a bad year," Balsley said. "And contributing to his trouble was arm problems. I expect him to be as good as he was before."

Even before Balsley met with Johnson, he consulted video to see where he could help his new pitcher. It was evident to see where Johnson had run afoul.

"Whenever a guy is hurt, mechanically they change," Balsley said. "They try to protect something that is hurt, and they sometimes don't realize their delivery is changing. He's [6-foot-7], and I think that he lost his downhill plane to his fastball and everything was a little flat.

"We want Josh to stand tall, throw downhill and throw strikes like he was doing before he got hurt."

Johnson doesn't exactly get wistful talking about that 2010 season with the Marlins, one that saw him go 13 consecutive starts of allowing two or fewer runs. In 12 of those games, he allowed one run or none. If you listen to him, he makes it sound as if more luck was involved than sheer dominance.

"Things were going well," Johnson said of his blissful runs in 2010. "My good friend Mark Buehrle always said that whenever you're on, you're getting lucky a lot. It seemed like every hard-hit ball that year was right at someone."

If healthy, Johnson gives the Padres another pitcher who can miss a lot of bats in the rotation along with Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy, who has struck out 160 or more batters over the past four seasons. Balsley has presided over some good rotations, but this has the potential to be among the best, if not the best.

"His talent is undeniable," catcher Nick Hundley said of Johnson. "If he's healthy, knowing his mindset and skill set, he's going to be really good for us. There's a reason this guy made a couple of All-Star teams."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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