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updated: 5/18/2017 4:42 PM

Pitching prospect Johnson ready to help Cubs

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  • The Chicago Cubs raise a flag in honor of Jackie Robinson's (42) 70th anniversary of playing his first game at Wrigley Field, before a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Thursday, May 18, 2017.

    The Chicago Cubs raise a flag in honor of Jackie Robinson's (42) 70th anniversary of playing his first game at Wrigley Field, before a baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Thursday, May 18, 2017.
    Associated Press


The next time Joe Maddon looks down his bench seeking a pitcher to pinch-hit, maybe the Cubs manager will tell new call-up Pierce Johnson to grab a bat.

Consider what Johnson once did at Faith Christian Academy in Colorado. Johnson broke his right hand when he fouled off a pitch. Unfazed, he swung again at the next offering.

"And I still got a base hit," said Johnson, smiling. "It's my claim to fame in high school."

Johnson has continued to overcome adversity since his high school days, and his promotion from Class AAA Iowa this week is the latest example. A sandwich draft pick by the Cubs in 2012 (43rd overall) out of Missouri State University, the 6-foot-3 righty has endured multiple injuries, including to his hamstring and lat muscle.

Ranked as the organization's ninth-best prospect by Baseball America entering the 2015 season, he had his worst professional season last year, posting a 6.14 ERA in 63 innings for Iowa.

"Last year was my first big taste of failure," said Johnson, the first pitcher drafted by the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime. "It was a long year for me. But at the same time I think that really fueled my offseason and helped propel me to where I am today."

What also helped Johnson reach the big leagues was a switch to the bullpen. At Iowa this season, he had a 3.21 ERA in 14 innings with 21 strikeouts and 11 walks. He now mainly throws just a fastball and breaking ball.

"Starting was my first love," Johnson said. "I did it growing up, through college, through most of my professional career. But, for now, (pitching in relief) is a role that I really enjoy. Hopefully I can have some more success in that and really help out the team."

Johnson was in the Cubs bullpen, available to make his big-league debut, Wednesday night when they played the Reds at Wrigley Field. His parents, sister and girlfriend are in town. With Felix Pena being sent down, Johnson is the lone homegrown pitcher on the Cubs roster.

"(Wednesday) I was sitting (in the bullpen) and every time the phone rang my heart started beating a little faster," Johnson said. "It's been a fun 24 hours, more than that. My family's here celebrating with me so it's been a whirlwind."

What Happ-ens, Happ-ens:

With Jason Heyward expected to be activated from the 10-day disabled list possibly Friday, when the Cubs host the Brewers in the first of a three-game series, Joe Maddon hinted that a positional player would likely have to go.

The Cubs have 13 relievers on their 25-man roster, and that's a number with which Maddon seems comfortable.

"If it was a pitcher, we'd be back down to the number that we just went through, and I didn't kind of like that," Maddon said. "I'm not saying that it wouldn't (be a pitcher that's sent down), but right now we have a string of games without off days."

That could mean versatile, switch-hitting Ian Happ being sent back to Class AAA Iowa. After going 2-for-4 with a ringing double and walk Thursday against the Reds, the 2015 first-round pick is 6-for-17 (.353) with 2 homers and 4 RBI in his first week as a big-leaguer.

"He's seeing beach balls," said pitcher Pierce Johnson, who was a teammate of Happ in Iowa. "Seeing him (hit) in AAA was awesome. He was hitting bombs -- left side, right side, taking (pitches) opposite field. He was hitting the ball hard too."

Since his call-up last Saturday, Happ has started at all three outfield spots. He was in left field and batting cleanup Thursday.

"He's more athletic than I was led to believe when I heard about him a couple of years ago," Maddon said. "I thought he was more offensive. But he's got absolute defensive skills."

Honoring No. 42:

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson playing his first game at Wrigley Field, the only remaining major league park in which Robinson played. The game on May 18, 1947, drew 46,572 fans, which remains the largest paid regular-season crowd in Wrigley Field history.

Robinson's granddaughter, Meta Robinson, helped raise a new flag honoring his legacy on the ballpark's right field foul pole before Thursday's game.

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