On Opening Day 2023, with the Colorado Rockies opening play against the San Diego Padres, it may have been a different uniform that Pierce Johnson was wearing when he took the field at Petco Park, but the feelings about being back in San Diego very much gave off a 2022 vibe.
A mixture of excitement for a fresh start with a new team and good memories for the franchise he called home for three seasons all meshed together for Johnson, who departed the Padres in the offseason to sign a one-year deal with Colorado. He had said goodbye (at least temporarily) to the Padres, a franchise that had inked him to a deal before the 2020 campaign that would give him another chance to pitch for a Major League team.
"It was a little bit of both different and special, because I hadn't pitched at Coors Field for the Rockies yet," Johnson said. "We went straight from spring training to Petco Park, so it was almost like I was back. It was very weird facing my old team, but I was excited to do it and can't wait to face them again."
But to get to that moment at Petco Park was quite the journey. After being put on waivers by the Chicago Cubs and then picked up by the San Francisco Giants, Johnson struggled through the 2018 campaign, posting a 5.56 ERA/4.51 FIP/1.374 WHIP in 43.2 innings over 37 games. Following that season, he was granted free agency and looked to see where his next pitching home would be. It turned out that it would be with Nippon Professional Baseball's Hanshin Tigers.
Thanks to the time in Japan and with San Diego Padres, Pierce Johnson evolved into an effective MLB reliever
Following struggles on an MLB mound, Johnson found his stride in Japan. In 58 games during the 2019 campaign, the right-hander posted a 1.84 ERA/0.801 WHIP over 58.2 innings. The improvement, Johnson says, was because he went back to his roots as a pitcher.
"I wanted to just find myself again," Johnson said. "I tried to be so coachable that every time somebody told me to make an adjustment or do something else, I tried to do it and, at that point in time, I lost who I was and what my strengths were. So when I went there, I was like, 'You know what, I'm going to jump in with both feet. I'm going to have the best experience I can and I'm going to pitch the way I want to pitch. If I end my career here, I end my career here, but I'm going to go the way I want to go and I can go to bed at night knowing that I gave it my all.' Honestly, when I did that, I jumped in with both feet. I learned the language, I tried the food. I did everything. It was such an incredible experience that I finally found who I was, on and off the field again. I felt like myself and, with that, came a lot of confidence. I'm just trying to ride that wave still."
That confidence helped push Johnson into a situation where the Padres inked him to a two-year deal. That deal, however, came before the season where COVID-19 put a stop to spring training and would eventually shorten the season to just 60 games.
However, despite the world changing because of the pandemic, Johnson still had a comfort level with his new situation because of his upbringing. His father, Don, was the Padres' vice president of marketing from 1992 to 1998, so Pierce had spent plenty of time around the franchise.
"This is a place I'm familiar with," Pierce said in 2018 before facing San Diego as a San Francisco pitcher. "I grew up around the game here. This is where I found my love of the game. It's a very special time to be here."
Now Pierce had gone from growing up around the franchise to being an integral part of its success in the game's late innings.
"I think because I got to be at a place where I grew up partly, that helped. But that was an organization that they let me be myself too," Johnson recalled. "Those guys greeted me from day one like I was a part of the team and I had been there for years. That meant a lot to me and I think that helped the transition back to the States."
During his three years with the Padres, Johnson appeared in 102 games, striking out 125 batters in 93.0 innings while recording a combined 3.39 ERA/3.19 FIP/1.290 WHIP. The numbers showed that Johnson had returned to MLB as a different pitcher than when he left.
"I feel like I took that wave of confidence from Japan to to San Diego and really was myself again. I enjoyed showing up to the yard every single day, whether I pitched or not, win or lose. I took the highs and lows so much better than I did prior to that. I just became more of a complete player and Pierce Johnson. I wasn't a shell of who I was.
"Like in San Francisco. I had my good days and my bad days, but I wasn't myself. I wasn't pitching the way I am today. And that's also the evolution of a player, trying to learn to be the best pitcher, changing certain things with your mechanics and whatnot, but I feel like I truly found myself."