TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are making steady, incremental gains through layer upon layer of improved individual performances, and the first contribution of significance from Josh Johnson on Monday night was an important and noteworthy gain.
A season of stops and starts for the 6-7 right-hander gained some momentum as he struck out 10 batters over 7.1 innings in a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies, leaving with a no-decision in an outing that finally showed how dominant and overpowering he can be.
The Blue Jays rotation has been a strength during the current six-game win streak, but while Esmil Rogers is proving to be a key contributor and Chien-Ming Wang has offered a nice boost, this team is going to have a tough time chasing down others in the standings without an effective Johnson.
Seven starts and 2½ months into his time with the Blue Jays, he was that and a whole lot more.
"That's what you see right there, dominating stuff where he's going to go out there and punch guys out and go deep into games," said left-hander Mark Buehrle. "This is one of the better starts he's had in the year and a half I've seen him.
"He struggled the first couple of starts (with the Blue Jays) and then he went on the DL, so I think he feels bad not being able to be here with the team and go out there every five days like we're depending on. Now I think if he can stay healthy, we're going to see more starts like this the rest of the year."
The Blue Jays will certainly take even a reasonable facsimile of what he featured Monday, when he duelled lefty Jorge De La Rosa (who threw seven innings of one-hit ball), bent but didn't break on a couple of occasions, and helped keep the opposition at bay until the offence could break through.
While nobody will confuse to the Rockies lineup with that of, say, the Boston Red Sox or Detroit Tigers, Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer can do some serious damage, and these are the types of games the Blue Jays have to win. Collectively, they did what was required.
Johnson worked out of a runners on the corners, none-out jam in the second, stranded a double in the fifth, two more batters in the sixth and then got a big assist from Brett Cecil in escaping a runners on second and third, one-out spot in the eighth to keep things scoreless.
Maicer Izturis then punched a little flare into left to cash in a pair in the bottom of the frame - credit to Colby Rasmus for a strong read at second base to scoot home right behind lead runner Rajai Davis - for a sixth straight win.
It was just the second time in his seven starts that Blue Jays won the game, a combination of bad luck, bad pitching and injury trouble that has kept him from capitalizing on a brilliant spring training.
"A little frustrating," Johnson said in describing his season so far. "Everything was a little bit off. In spring everything was clicking, right where I wanted it to be, if I could just ride that out for the whole season that would've been nice. But that's baseball. Sometimes you get thrown a curveball, I guess, and you have to find a way to make it work."
Johnson made it work against the Rockies by pumping a fastball with late life past hitters and finishing them off with his slider or curveball, keeping them from getting comfortable. Very rarely did they make solid contact, although he did get some help from his defence.
Still, there's been a rhythm to him in his past three starts -- seven innings of two-run ball against San Francisco June 4, and five innings of three-run ball June 9 versus Texas while fighting a blister on his middle finger - that lacked out of the gate.
On the mound, he looks like the boss.
"Definitely the most comfortable I've been," said Johnson, a prospective free agent in the fall. "Just being able to get extension on all my pitches, not have to worry about tricep or anything like that, it's definitely nice."
For him and the Blue Jays, certainly; the Rockies didn't have much fun.
"He's definitely got some of the best stuff in the game," said Cuddyer. "He's big, tall, throws hard. When he's throwing strikes like that, he can be tough. His fastball was getting on guys."
That's what Johnson can do at his best, when he's on. He set the tone from the get-go and didn't let things spin out of control, which is exactly what a team wants out of its starter.
Johnson may not have been able to help keep the Blue Jays from falling on their faces right out of the gate, there's plenty of time left for him to be the type of difference-maker he was Monday.
"He needed that," said manager John Gibbons. "He's looking to bounce back and contribute and I think he felt really good tonight."
For a sixth game in a row, so did the Blue Jays, step-by-step looking like the team they were supposed to be.
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Blue Jays (33-36) won their sixth straight before a crowd of 20,946, matching their longest win streak since May 10-16, 2011. They moved to three game under .500 for the first time since they were 8-11 on April 21. The Rockies (37-34) lost for the fourth time in six games.
This is the fifth series between the teams, with the previous four all ending in sweeps by the home team.
THE FIREMAN: Brett Cecil's run of consecutive batters retired is over at 25 batters but the two outs he recorded in the eighth inning led to a remarkable escape that made the victory possible.
Josh Johnson left with runners on second and third and one out, and Cecil came on to face Carlos Gonzalez, who ripped a laser but right into Adam Lind's glove.
After Michael Cuddyer was walked intentionally, ending Cecil's run, Todd Helton grounded to second to end the threat.
"He's pitched as good as anybody down there, he's dominating left-handed hitters, and so when Gonzalez comes to the plate, one of the premier run-producers in the game, that was a no-brainer to me," said manager John Gibbons. "Then he gets Helton, too. He's on a nice little roll."
RUN SAVER: Josh Johnson wasn't in trouble very often but Maicer Izturis prevented a run from scoring in the fifth when the shortstop dove to stop Jonathan Herrera's bouncer up the middle and threw to first for the final out, stranding Nolan Arenado's double.
"He's showing more range in the field, made a couple of nice plays, and then that big hit," manager John Gibbons said of Izturis. "He didn't hit it hard, but he dunked it in the perfect spot and a nice read at second base by Rasmus there. Izzy's starting to settle in a little bit. New guy, new place, trade, free agent, it's not uncommon for guys to press.
"I think he's settled in and feels comfortable now, part of the team."