At the end of July, Josh Johnson was arguably the best pitcher in the National League and in serious contention for his first Cy Young award. On Monday, he became just another ailing Marlins player shut down for what's left of the season.
The two-time All-Star, who had been battling a strained muscle near the middle of his back since August and was scratched from a start last Friday after he began to feel pain in his shoulder during a bullpen session, said it was "just the smart thing to do."
"You have to be smart [with] things like this," said Johnson, who was 10-3 with a 1.72 ERA at the end of July. "I told them 'if something else starts hurting, if something else comes from my back, then I'm going to shut it down. I'll let you guys know.' They said 'OK.' Everything felt good until the last start.
"We did treatment for it. We did all the right stuff to get it right. The shoulder is actually getting a lot better. It's probably two or three days away from throwing, I'd say. But the back -- if the back's not 100 percent, then the shoulder is going to go right back [to feeling bad]."
Johnson said he first felt discomfort in his back "early in the year" before it went away and returned during an Aug. 7 start against the Cardinals. Over his final six starts, including that one in St. Louis, Johnson went 1-2 with a 3.68 ERA. He finishes the season 11-6 with a career-best 2.30 ERA and 186 strikeouts over 183 2/3 innings.
"I'm not one to make excuses -- you know that," Johnson said of his late season struggles. "Every now and then you could tell things were a little ragged, a little off. I was just trying to protect my back or subconsciously think of my back."
Monday was the first time in two months he actually woke up and didn't have pain. But with the Marlins eight games behind the Braves in the wild-card race and nine games back of the visiting Phillies in the division with 20 games remaining, nobody on either side figured it was smart to keep running him out on the mound.
"He was getting a little bit better, but he was very far from being 100 percent," Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "Next year, this team is going to be very competitive and JJ has to be a big part of that. That was part of the decision and a factor in our decision.”
The Marlins of course also want to protect their investment. They gave Johnson, who is 33-12 with a 2.94 ERA since returning from reconstructive elbow surgery in July 2008, a $39 million, four-year contract in January. He's due to make $7.75 million in 2011 then $13.75 million in 2012 when the Marlins open their new ballpark, and again in 2013.
Johnson said the plan now is to try and have him come back and "throw" during the final week of the regular season. As for his season, Johnson didn't want to talk about what could have been. The Marlins' bullpen blew six starts in which Johnson handed them the lead this season.
"Even though he’s going to be shut down for the rest of the season, he still had a great year," Rodriguez said. "I think he was the best in the first half of the year. Although Ubaldo Jimenez got more wins, JJ was the best one first part of the season.”
> With Johnson done for the season and Chris Volstad and Alex Sanabia serving suspensions this week in the aftermath of the Nyjer Morgan fiasco, the Marlins are short on starting pitching.
Rodriguez said the plan is to try and hold either Jorge Sosa or Burke Badenhop from pitching over the next two days so they can start Wednesday in Johnson's place. Badenhop, who started for the Marlins twice last season, is 2-3 with a 6.95 ERA in 10 career starts. Sosa is 27-39 with a 4.55 ERA in 88 career starts. Sosa. But he hasn't started a major league game since he pitched for the Mets on July 27, 2007.
> Center fielder Cameron Maybin was scratched from Monday's start with flu like symptoms and was replaced by Emilio Bonifacio.