Wilner on Jays: Johnson flashes the goods

Josh Johnson makes his Blue Jays debut Friday when John Farrell returns to Rogers Centre.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — One of the first things Josh Johnson said after his last outing was that he was really happy he wouldn’t be pitching out of the bullpen anymore.

Johnson, who had followed R.A. Dickey to the mound in each of his two previous outings this spring, showed just how happy he was by going out and thoroughly dominating the Atlanta Braves, retiring all 11 batters he faced — five by strikeout — and allowing only one ball to be hit out of the infield.

Johnson had the Braves hitters eating out of his hands with great command of a fastball that touched 95 m.p.h. and a biting curveball. He even took the slider out for a few spins, finishing off three of his strikeouts with it.

The 6-foot-7 righty showed why he’s been a pitcher every team has coveted the last couple of years. The 2010 ERA champion was just a joy to behold; he was so efficient John Gibbons sent him out to start the fourth inning even though he’d only been scheduled to go three.

Johnson still had plenty left in the tank for the fourth, striking out Jason Heyward and Jordan Parraz before handing the ball off to Jeremy Jeffress and going off to enjoy the rest of his afternoon at Disney World. In fact, Johnson struck out four of the last five batters he faced.

Jeffress was almost as dominant as Johnson. The big-armed righty is in the running for the last spot in the bullpen, the long-man role, but he hadn’t thrown more than one inning in any of his previous stints this spring.

Jeffress came on to end the fourth by striking out Justin Upton on a 98-m.p.h. fastball and then proceeded to throw two more innings over which he imposed his will on the Braves, allowing naught but an infield single that wound up turning into the Braves’ only run (B.J. Upton stole second, went to third on Josh Thole’s wild throw and scored on a groundout).

Over his 2.1 innings of work, Jeffress struck out three and allowed only one ball to be hit out of the infield, making a big impression on a Blue Jays front office that wanted to see exactly this from a guy who is out of options, and therefore can’t be sent to the minor leagues without having to pass through waivers.

Next to the mound was Esmil Rogers, who gave up three home runs in a span of five batters faced in his last outing, Tuesday against the Orioles. Rogers flipped the script completely from that outing, rebounding beautifully with a perfect inning in which he threw only seven pitches. He got a first pitch pop-up from Parraz, then struck out the Upton brothers on three pitches each.

Steve Delabar and Tyson Brummet finished up what was a tremendous performance by the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, combining on a two-hitter with no walks, striking out 10.

On the offensive side, it was The Anthony Gose Show.

Gose led off the game with a ground single up the middle, stole second and scored easily on a single to right by Ryan Langerhans on which the overwhelming majority of baserunners stop at third. Next time up, Gose crushed a Kris Medlen offering over the 385-foot sign in right-centre for a two-run homer. An infield single followed in his next trip up, after which he once again stole second and scored, this time on a two-run single by Rajai Davis. In his final trip, Gose beat out a double play ball and was running on the pitch when Davis tripled to right-centre.

So the young centrefielder was 3-for-4 to raise his spring line to .375/.483/.583 in 29 plate appearances. He’s making it as difficult as possible for the Blue Jays to follow through on the intended plan to have him start the season in triple-A Buffalo, but follow through they will. There’s almost no chance that Gose beats out Colby Rasmus for the starting job in centre — Rasmus will finally be back in the lineup (we’re told, though we have been told such things before) for Saturday’s game against the Tigers. He hasn’t played since Feb. 27 because of a sore right shoulder.

Ricky Romero will start Saturday’s game as the Blue Jays are home for the first time since their Tuesday tie against the Orioles. It’ll be Romero’s third start of the spring — last time out was against the Phillies, and he was perfect but for a wind-blown triple by Kevin Frandsen. Romero is scheduled to throw three innings, and will be trying to pitch the Blue Jays back to the .500 mark for the spring.

We’ll be back on the air across the Blue Jays Radio Network for both this weekend’s games — home to the Tigers and Yankees — with Jerry Howarth returning to the mic to call them both. Dirk Hayhurst will be by his side, as he has been by mine through the week. The pre-game show begins at 12:30 p.m. ET both days, though it’ll start earlier on Saturday than it does on Sunday (spring forward, everyone!). And yes, there will indeed be an opportunity to call me up and talk Blue Jays after the games. The BlueJaysTalk is back!

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