Cubs pitching prospect Pierce Johnson missed around two months of the season with a pair of lower-leg injuries, one of which resulted in a mechanical change that cost the 2012 first-rounder both command and velocity.
Back now with Double-A Tennessee with the delivery that first caught the eye of scouts when he was in college, the 6-foot-3 right-hander showed no ill effects of the calf strain that sent him to the disabled list four weeks ago.
The No. 7 Cubs prospect allowed one hit over a career-high 7 1/3 innings Wednesday in the Smokies' 7-0 win over the visiting Montgomery Biscuits.
"It's great, it's like coming back home," said Johnson, selected by the Cubs 43rd overall in 2012 out of Missouri State University. "In Kane, I was with a lot of people who I got drafted with, but here I have a lot of close friends.
"I was just trying to stay within myself [during the rehab] and throw good pitches and keep the ball down and I felt like that translated to the game tonight."
He struck out five batters and issued two free passes in lowering his Southern League ERA to 3.44. He had twice gone seven innings before, including last time out Friday for Class A Kane County against Beloit and in the Cougars' 4-2 win over Wisconsin last June 16.
Johnson, ranked 82nd among MLB.com's Top 100 prospects, set down the side in order in the first inning and used a double play to work out of trouble in the second after he issued leadoff walks to Cameron Seitzer and Alejandro Segovia.
The lone hit surrendered by Johnson came in the fourth when Jake Hager singled back up the middle to begin the inning, but the right-hander caught Hager leaning and picked him off in a rundown. That started a run of 13 consecutive outs before Johnson turned a 7-0 lead over to the bullpen with one out in the eighth.
"[Hager] put a great swing on it," Johnson said. "He beat me on my best pitch. It was a fastball that came back across the plate. It was a great night ... and everything was working, my fastball, slider, cutter and changeup. I was throwing them all for strikes for the most part.
"It was probably one of my best outings ever and I can't thank my team enough. [Shortstop] Elliot Soto and [third baseman] Jonathan Mota were like vacuums on the left side and Luis Flores did a great job catching me for the first time."
Now in his third year of pro ball, Johnson posted a 3.27 ERA in six starts across two levels in his rookie year. He went 11-6 with a 2.74 mark between Kane County and Daytona in 2013.
Sidelined with a hamstring injury to start the year, Johnson was 1-1 with a 4.39 ERA and more walks (24) than strikeouts (22) in his first six Southern League games before he succumbed to a nagging calf injury. The Cubs sent him back to the Midwest League for a pair of starts with the Cougars, before he returned Wednesday seemingly strong than ever.
"After my hamstring injury in Spring Training, I changed my delivery a little bit and that made me more inconsistent. I wasn't throwing strikes and that frustrated me," said the Colorado native, who creates deception out of a three-quarter arm slot.
"I wasn't pushing off very much and I was flying open and not staying closed. I have to stay closed to keep the ball down. I took it back to basics and I feel like I'm back in my rhythm. I'm doing a lot more stretches, especially in my pregame and pre-practices."
Tennessee's Andrew McKirahan worked around two hits and two walks over 1 2/3 innings of relief to complete the shutout in his Double-A debut. Left fielder Kevin Brown went 3-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and two runs scored, center fielder Jae-Hoon Ha collected two hits and three RBIs out of the No. 8 spot and Flores added a solo homer, his first since moving down from Iowa.
Montgomery starter Victor Mateo (8-6) allowed seven runs on 10 hits and a walk over five innings.