Johnson flourishing in first season with Marlins

Josh Johnson was the Marlins' minor league pitcher of the year in 2005, and easily will be Florida's best hurler at the big league level at the end of this year. Johnson will be the Marlins' starter in the first game of their big series against the Phillies in Miami on Thursday; Florida and Philadelphia are both in the mix for the National League wild card.

The 22-year-old right-hander began this season in the bullpen, but now has not only forced his way into the rotation, but also has become, for the moment, the Marlins' ace. Johnson surely will garner votes for Rookie of the Year and Cy Young in the NL.

"It's been a fun year because of the way each one of us has improved," Johnson told ESPNdeportes.com. "It's great to be in a major-league starting rotation and to help my team win the most games possible."

Johnson leads the Marlins in ERA (2.99), as he tries to become the first rookie to lead his league in that category since Detroit's Mark Fidrych paced the American League in 1976. Johnson's 12 victories tie him with Marlins teammate Scott Olsen and Minnesota's Francisco Liriano for second place among rookies, behind Justin Verlander (15 wins) of the Tigers.

After appearing in four games at the end of last year, Johnson began 2006 in the Marlins' pen. He started his first game on May 4, pitching five innings of one-hit ball to defeat Washington. At the end of that month, he had what he described as the "game of his life," when he defeated the Mets' Pedro Martinez at Dolphin Stadium.

"That's one of the moments I'll never forget from my rookie year," said Johnson, who also went on to outduel John Smoltz and Roy Halladay, two other former Cy Young winners.

In a stretch of five starts between May 26 (against Martinez) and June 18 (against Halladay), Jason Schmidt (twice) and Smoltz, Johnson went 3-2 with a 1.38 ERA. In the two defeats, both against Schmidt and San Francisco, he gave up only three earned runs in 14 innings.

Born in Minneapolis, Johnson was a fourth-round selection by the Marlins in the 2002 amateur draft after graduating from Jenks High School in Oklahoma, where he played basketball in addition to baseball.

The 6-foot-7 Johnson credits much of his success this year to the advice of veteran Brian Moehler, who has become somewhat of a "personal coach" for the rookie. "Moehler helps me with scouting reports, points out weaknesses in opposing hitters and has taught me how to develop a solid routine on days I don't pitch," Johnson said.

"Josh has the talent. He's got two great fastballs, but above all, he's a kid who listens and isn't afraid," said Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo. "His success is no accident."

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.