After a short stay in Japan, Pierce Johnson at home with Padres

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San Diego Padres Pierce Johnson pitches during a spring training practice on Feb. 18, 2020. - K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

PEORIA, Ariz. — Pierce Johnson was living on the other side of the world when he sent his pregnant wife, Kristina, off to Colorado in August to prepare for the arrival of their son, Breck. Alone in Japan the final several weeks of the Hanshin Tigers’ season, the 28-year-old reliever slowly packed up the rest of the couple’s belongings as he contemplated an uncertain future.

Johnson had plenty of reasons to hope his upcoming journey back to the United States would be a permanent one.

He just had no way of knowing.

Not even after blowing through the Nippon Professional Baseball the way he had.

“We gambled big time when we came home,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really know for sure. You never know. Maybe teams are like, ‘hey, it’s a one-hit wonder,’ or ‘hey, his stuff really progressed and he’s throwing strikes.’ I didn’t know what teams thought because I hadn’t talked to them.

“We kind of gambled and it paid off.”

Did it ever.

Before his expedition to Japan, Johnson had an ERA north of 5.00 and a few split contract offers that, more than likely, meant starting his season in Triple-A and hoping for another chance in the majors. The road less traveled — a year in Japan and over $1 million in salary — brought the one-time San Diegan back to the organization that employed his father in the mid-90s via a two-year, $5 million guaranteed deal, his reward for striking out 91 batters in 58 2/3 innings (1.38 ERA) in a place that has revived many a career.

It just usually takes some time.

Former Padres farmhand Miles Mikolas needed three seasons with Yomiuri before becoming an All-Star in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation. Former first-rounder Colby Lewis pitched two seasons for Hiroshima before finishing his career with six seasons in the majors. Ryan Vogelsong threw two years for Hanshin and another for Orix before winning two World Series rings with the Giants.

“There’s a history of some guys going over to Japan, finding themselves and maybe improving in different areas,” Padres General Manager A.J. Preller said. “He’s got some major league weapons that he’s always possessed and from a consistency standpoint he used his time in Japan to harness some of that.”

Those weapons include a mid-90s fastball that made Johnson a first-round pick of the Cubs in 2012. He largely back-pocketed the cutter that had been hit hard in his last season with the San Francisco Giants. A power curve ticked up in velocity spin, largely because his conviction and confidence in throwing his out-pitch swelled the more he threw it.

“Everywhere I’ve been someone was like, ‘Let’s change this, let’s change that,’ “ Johnson said. “I tried to be coachable and I think that was my downfall. I tried to please everyone when I should have focused on myself and what worked for me.”

He added: “I was filling up the zone more (in Japan). I was in better counts. I just did everything to help myself on the field instead of nibbling here and there and then I’m behind in the count and now guys know a fastball is coming. There, I was ahead a lot and that was my mentality.”

In Japan, where pitchers predominantly work with fastballs and splitters — or shuutos — the Hanshin Tigers were happy to let Johnson decide how he wanted to work.

He and his catcher and coaches, with the help of an interpreter that shadowed Johnson everywhere, got on the same page in spring training. Johnson helped his cause by noting in his phone how to say words he’d picked up around the field and clubhouse. Baseball, he learned, had a universal language, but Johnson adapted well enough to order food and get him and wife around town until she left.

By then, of course, Johnson had been an all-star. He would have been a valuable arm in a playoff bullpen, too, had Kristina not required an emergency C-section back in Colorado. Johnson learned of the predicament in the middle of the night, was en route when his son was safely delivered and spent five days with his family — with Breck in an incubator the whole time — before heading back to Japan.

The Tigers were ultimately eliminated without Johnson appearing in a game. Within a few days, he was headed back to the U.S. with all of his belongings.

“It was a really hard month for us,” Johnson said. “The month of October was a blur.”

Things got better quickly.

In fact, his career came full circle when his agent, John Boggs, delivered news of the Padres’ interest in a reliever who’d struck out seven batters for every walk issued.

Twenty-five years earlier, Johnson’s dad, Don, had been the Padres’ vice president of marketing. The job positioned young Pierce to fall in love with baseball in the shadows of Tony Gwynn, Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti and Trevor Hoffman. He caught his first foul ball as a second-grader in spring training at the Peoria Sports Complex not too far from where Hoffman was watching over Johnson’s side session last week.

When his skills blossomed after the family moved to Colorado, Don Johnson asked Boggs, Tony Gwynn’s long-time agent, to advise his son. An intern with the Padres in the mid-90s, Theo Epstein, even drafted Johnson out of Missouri State with the 43rd overall pick in 2012.

Colorado is still home these days.

But the Padres are, too.

Hopefully for quite some time.

“It’s surreal,” Johnson said.

He added: “I think because I was here and played and I came back, it’s just a different appreciation. I’ve pitched at the highest level and I’ve had success in a different country. To come home and play in front of my family, it just gives it a different taste.

“It’s just a little better.”

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune