When things have gotten dicey in the ninth, Pierce Johnson’s cool head has prevailed. The Rockies have been the beneficiaries.
The Denver native and graduate of Faith Christian High School locked down his 10th save in 10 chances Tuesday night in the Rockies’ 5-4 win over the Marlins at Coors Field. Johnson’s 10 saves were tied for third-most in the National League entering Wednesday’s play, and he was one of just four major-league pitchers, with at least 10 save opportunities, to have not blown a save.
He hasn’t always been dominant and he’s had to play traffic cop more than he would like, but, so far, he’s made pitches when he’s had to.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with traffic, whether that’s good or bad,” Johnson said with a laugh. “When I was in San Diego in 2020-21, I was the fireman. I’d come in when the starter got in early trouble and that was always kind of my spot to come in. So I’ve had a lot of experience with guys on base and I’ve learned how to slow things down. I’ve been able to execute pitches — when needed.”
Johnson’s overall statistics are pedestrian: 4.95 ERA, 1.70 WHIP and 27 strikeouts vs. 12 walks. But in save situations he’s been nails: 1.86 ERA, 1.241 WHIP and 12 strikeouts vs. three walks.
When Daniel Bard, last season’s closer, went on the injured list with anxiety at the beginning of the season, manager Bud Black and his staff picked Johnson, 32, to be their primary ninth-inning reliever, in large part because of his poise.
“There was an experience factor with Pierce that we felt comfortable with,” Black said. “When we got to know him over the winter and in spring training, we thought it made the most sense to go with Pierce when Daniel when on the injured list.
“In some ways, he’s pitched to the scoreboard. They’ve nicked him for a run, here or there, but at the end of the day, he’s closed games. And he’s done it with his style — the fastball, curve and a little bit of a slider mix. And we never have to worry about poise, fielding his position, or holding runners on base.”
Black, however, stressed that Johnson needs to cut down on walks because his 12.9 walk percentage is risky, and higher than the major league average (8.5%). In games at Coors Field, in particular, free passes will eventually haunt a pitcher.
“Not walking guys here is crucial,” Johnson said. “We are joking in the bullpen that a five-run lead here should almost qualify as a save because of the bloop singles and balls shooting in the gaps for extra bases.”
Bard’s role. Bard continues to improve after his trip to the IL, but he’s not slated for late-game duty yet.
“I’m seeing a good breaking ball and it’s ticking up velocity-wise,” Black said. “And it looks normal in a lot of ways — his delivery, his tempo, his rhythm. Those are positives.”
Bard has held opponents scoreless in 10 of 11 appearances, good for an 0.82 ERA. But he’s walked nine while striking out eight, so the dominance he displayed last season is still not there. In recent games, his fastball velocity has picked up, but on average he’s thrown his fastball at 94.5 mph this season compared to 97.9 last season.
Footnotes. Right-hander Noah Davis, on the injured list since April 30 with elbow inflammation, now has an itinerary the Rockies hope will get him back in the starting rotation soon. Davis is scheduled to start an extended-spring game on Friday in Arizona and then pitch for Triple-A Albuquerque in Salt Lake City next week. … Catcher Elias Diaz continues to put up All-Star-worthy numbers. He entered Wednesday’s game ranked second in the majors with a .345 average and tied for fourth with a .463 batting average with runners in scoring position. Diaz was hitting .405 at Coors Field and has hit .609 (14 for 23) with runners in scoring position at Coors.
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