Kane County pitching coach Ron Villone sees right-hander Pierce Johnson finally getting comfortable, in part because he and the Cougars are no longer battling elements as challenging as their opponents.
"We've played in Wisconsin and back in Illinois and we've had 40-, 50-mph winds, rain, sleet, snow," Villone said. "We've had to battle a bunch of stuff."
It was 61 degrees with clear skies Friday night as Johnson took the hill against Fort Wayne. And the Cubs' No. 7 prospect established career highs with seven strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings in the Cougars' 6-5, 10-inning loss.
Johnson allowed an unearned run on five hits and two walks. The outing was his second straight without giving up an earned run, dropping his ERA to 3.50. He's thrown 18 innings over four starts in his first full pro season.
"Last year, I was on a two-inning limit, so this year I had to be able to get back in a good rhythm," the Missouri State product said, referring to the six starts he made last season in the Arizona and Northwest leagues after going 43rd overall in the first round of the Draft.
"I didn't have that rhythm my first couple games. I'd been trying to find it, and I found it tonight."
Johnson allowed five earned runs over 2 1/3 innings in his full-season debut on April 4 but bounced back with a five-inning, two-run outing five days later against Clinton.
The Cougars had eight postponements between that April 9 start and Johnson's next outing on April 20. The Arvada, Colo., native yielded an unearned run over five innings with a career-best six strikeouts that day.
"We had some weather delays and postponements, and that can make it hard to get into a routine," Villone said. "He's closer to getting into a routine, and that will help him. We want him to get out there and get experience working deeper into games."
Fastball command is Johnson's primary focus at this stage. The 21-year-old thought he made strides with that Friday, setting up his breaking stuff.
"I came out and had control of my fastball and that helped me tremendously," Johnson said. "Once I got ahead, I went to my breaking ball, which has been my go-to pitch. It was on tonight."
Johnson succeeded at Missouri State primarily as a two-pitch, fastball-breaking ball pitcher. His heater can climb into the mid-90s and his slider is a hard-breaking, vertical offering.
Much of Johnson's future hinges on the development of his changeup, which was a focal point last summer and continues to be emphasized this season.
"You can be a two-pitch pitcher for a while, but as you move up the ladder, better hitters are going to see a whole lot more of what a guy offers," Villone said. "Having three pitches in your arsenal is an improvement.
"You can see the improvement in his changeup. His arm speed is more consistent. He's a smart young man and he's ready to learn. He's going out there and trying a few new things, but he's also not getting away from his strengths."
Johnson's defense bailed him out of one key jam Friday. With runners at the corners and one out in the third, Diego Goris ripped a ball toward third base. Jeimer Candelario snagged the sharp grounder and began an inning-ending double play.
"That honestly saved my outing," Johnson said.
The right-hander struck out two in the fourth, allowed an unearned run in the fifth and recorded a strikeout and a popup to start the sixth before being replaced by Jeffry Antigua.
As he settles into his professional routine, Johnson could be a fast riser in a Cubs system that lacks legitimate starting pitching at the higher levels of the Minor Leagues. He's made progress in every start this season and Villone thinks that trend will continue, owing to the prospect's strong makeup.
"When people listen and apply, it's a nice thing to see," Villone said. "He's a student and he's becoming a better student of the game, listening and all the hard work he puts into the game. Pitching once every five games or so, it can be difficult to get on a roll and find the right way to get it done and go out and execute. Being a student makes that transition easier."