Hampton outdueled by Johnson

Hampton outdueled by Johnson

ATLANTA -- For the first time in more than three years, Mike Hampton pitched into the eighth inning. But while further proving that he can be both healthy and successful at the Major League level, the Braves' southpaw wasn't able to match Josh Johnson's dominance.

In fact, based on the praise Johnson was receiving after tossing his first career complete game and leading the Marlins to a 4-1 win over the Braves at Turner Field on Wednesday night, there was reason to believe he was a Cy Young Award winner and not a pitcher who underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery a little more than a year ago.

"Tip your hat," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He was great. He wasn't good. He was great. We couldn't touch him early on. He's a legit [ace]."

When Johnson underwent the surgical procedure on Aug. 3, 2007, there was some initial thought that he might miss this entire '08 season. But instead, the 24-year-old hurler returned to the mound on July 4, and in the nine starts he's made since that time, he's gone 4-0 with a 3.12 ERA.

But this was certainly the finest start of that stretch, and arguably the finest of Johnson's young career. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound right-hander allowed four hits and one run in a 113-pitch effort that included eight strikeouts and three walks. He faced the minimum through four innings and didn't allow a hit until Kelly Johnson tripled into the right-field corner with one out in the fifth inning.

"I knew he looked tough on film," said Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who accounted for two of his team's four hits. "But tonight was a different story."

Johnson's post-Tommy John surgery story is shaping up much different than the one Hampton encountered after having a new ligament placed in his elbow on Sept. 26, 2005. Another elbow surgery was required during the first week of the 2007 season, and he didn't return to the mound until July 26 of this year.

Slowly but surely, Hampton is once again proving to be the dependable pitcher that he was before encountering his tremendous injury woes. While allowing the Marlins three earned runs and eight hits in eight innings, the 35-year-old southpaw silenced most of his remaining critics.

"He was very good," Cox said of Hampton, who has allowed three earned runs or less in four of his past five starts. "I keep saying, 'This was his best outing, that was his best outing.' But this was, no doubt."

While completing eight innings for the first time since May 8, 2005, Hampton once again fell victim to some fifth-inning struggles. Entering the game, opponents were hitting .560 against him in the fifth, and Hanley Ramirez added to those numbers with his decisive two-run single.

After Cody Ross began the fifth inning with a double, and Dan Uggla followed with a walk, Johnson provided a one-out sacrifice bunt that gave the Marlins runners at second and third. With the table set, Ramirez directed his eventual game-winning hit up the middle, just past a diving Yunel Escobar.

"I didn't feel different or go out there like I had to treat it like a different inning," Hampton said when asked about his fifth-inning troubles. "I didn't think my stuff was any different."

After Kelly Johnson provided his triple, Martin Prado followed with a groundout that accounted for the only run surrendered by Josh Johnson, who improved to 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA in seven career starts against the Braves.

"I pitched a good game on a night when I had to pitch a great game," Hampton said. "I think we did a lot just to get one run off him."

Coming off Tuesday night's walk-off victory, during which they scored six runs in the final two innings, the Braves had a chance to create some late-inning magic. Prado reached to begin the sixth when first baseman Jorge Cantu was unable to keep his foot on the base while receiving a throw from Ramirez.

But after Francoeur collected his second single of the night and Brandon Jones advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt, Johnson ended the threat with consecutive strikeouts of Greg Norton and Gregor Blanco.

"[Johnson] was tough," Francoeur said. "Before Tommy John [surgery], I thought he was really good. I don't know if he's not throwing as hard, but his ball is really moving."

Likewise, Hampton's patented sinker is once again consistently dancing, as evidenced by the fact that he recorded a season-high five strikeouts and recorded 11 groundouts.

With just one month remaining on his eight-year, $121 million contract, there's reason for Hampton to wonder about a future many claimed he'd never have. But for now, he says he's blocking thoughts about his next contract and remaining focused on the task of proving that he deserves a chance to pitch again next season.

"I know what it's going to take for me to pitch again, and that's to finish strong," Hampton said.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.