JJ throwing hitters for a loop

ATLANTA — Early in Spring Training, Josh Johnson hinted that he may have something up his sleeve for hitters during the season.

The new wrinkle Johnson is showing is a knee-buckling curveball.

As if hitters didn’t have enough to worry about with Johnson’s 95-plus mph fastball and power slider. Now, they have to deal with the hard-throwing right-hander changing speeds.

Johnson isn’t throwing too many curveballs, but he is showing it just enough to give hitters something to think about.

It was mixed into his gameplan on Wednesday night when he flirted with a no-hitter against the Braves.

Of Johnson’s 109 pitches, about five were curveballs.

Johnson cruised along with a no-hitter through seven innings before Freddie Freeman slapped an opposite-field double with one out in the eighth.

“All the credit goes to JJ,” said Hanley Ramirez, who drove in the first run in Florida’s 5-1 win at Turner Field. “He did what he was supposed to do. He went deep into the game, and gave our bullpen a little bit of a rest.”

As Johnson kept logging outs, the Marlins were bracing for what could have been the fifth no-hitter in franchise history.

“Everybody was praying for it in the infield and the outfield,” Ramirez said. “At the end of the night, we won. We got that win.”

Getting Johnson the early lead off Tim Hudson set the tone.

“Everybody knows how JJ is when he gets the lead,” Ramirez said. “When he gets the lead, he’s even tougher. He was pounding the strike zone. I think he’s got a new pitch now. He’s unbelievable.”

Johnson actually has thrown the “new pitch” already this year.

On Opening Day, Johnson froze David Wright of the Mets with an 80 mph curveball in the first inning for a strikeout.

He’s sprinkled it into his first three starts, and it was effective on Wednesday.

Freeman’s double to left on Wednesday came when he took a 95 mph fastball to the opposite field.

Johnson’s slider is arguably the best of any starter in the National League.

The curveball is something Johnson has tinkered with since Spring Training. He’s also worked on his changeup.

The reason those two pitches are important is because Johnson is striving to slow the ball down. He has the capability of throwing so hard, that the hitters dig in for pitches in a 91-97 mph range.

Johnson’s slider has been clocked at 91 mph, but it’s most effective about 84-86 mph, because the change of speed makes it harder for hitters to adjust.

Now, he’s throwing a curveball about 80 mph, making him even more imposing.

“It’s been getting better and better, and I’m starting to locate it a little more,” Johnson said.

Johnson has picked up some pointers on throwing the breaking ball from Ricky Nolasco, one of the better curveball pitchers in the NL.

“I’ve been talking with Ricky,” Johnson said. “He’s a good one to talk to about it. It’s just something for hitters to see slow, and maybe my fastball will look a little harder.”

Joe Frisaro

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