The problem begins in the elbow where the ulnar nerve is located. When that nerve is damaged, it's like having a toothache that just won't go away. It's one of the worst feelings in the world for an athlete, especially for a pitcher.

Josh Johnson remembers that feeling, how he first felt it in September 2006. He was 12-7 that season with a 3.10 earned run average -- creditable numbers for a rookie -- with the Marlins. But he had missed significant time with an irritated ulnar nerve, an ominous hint of things to come.

The next season, he still felt that lingering problem, the stiffness, the pain. It was a condition that limited him to 15 2/3 innings pitched in 2007. He was 0-3 with a 7.47 ERA when the frightening diagnosis was made. His condition would require Tommy John surgery.

Johnson was just 23 when Dr. James Andrews transplanted a tendon from his right wrist into his elbow. Dr. Andrews has performed more than 2,500 of these operations, and the prognosis is usually the same -- 12 to 18 months away from the game. Johnson's surgery was performed on Aug. 4, 2007. That translated to a possible return late in 2008, more likely in 2009.

But the traditional timetable didn't apply to Johnson, a tough, young Oklahoman who pitches with a poker face, never giving a hint of how he's feeling. He was back on the mound on July 10, 2008, just 11 months after the surgery. In 14 starts that season, he went 7-1.

Johnson remembers the recovery, a time that began with him not allowed to throw a baseball for four months. "That was the toughest part," he said. "You think, 'Am I ever going to be able to throw again?'"

The answer was yes and much sooner than anyone could have anticipated.

"It would have been easy to give up and be satisfied with what I had already done," Johnson said. "But I wasn't ready to quit. I wanted to pitch in the Major Leagues again."

Johnson threw himself into the rehabilitation regimen, following the rules religiously. He had a recipe on how to come back, and it paid off for him. How good was his recovery? After that 7-1 half season in 2008, Johnson went 15-5 in 2009 and earned a spot on the National League All-Star team.

He entered the 2010 season with a .786 post-surgery winning percentage -- best in the Majors over that stretch. His .750 winning percentage last season, when he threw 209 innings, was tied for second best in the NL. Armed with a fastball that touches 95 mph, Johnson has become one of the best young pitchers in baseball and a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate.

The Marlins recognized that and in January signed Johnson to a four-year contract extension worth $39 million. It was a statement signing, rewarding his role as the ace of the youngest starting staff in the NL.

And while he struggled early this season after a bout with the flu, Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez gives him wide berth whenever he's on the mound and was never a bit concerned.

"There is a feeling of confidence around the team when he's starting," Gonzalez said. "He gives you a chance to win just about every time out."

By Monday night, Johnson was back to his old self. And then some.

The big right-hander pitched a three-hitter, posting a career-high 12 strikeouts in a 10-1 win over the Padres for his fourth career complete game.

"That's what I go out there for every time," Johnson said. "Just to get as deep as possible, and as deep as possible is nine innings. It's just going out there and doing it, finally, and finally finding that tempo. It speaks volumes to finally find that tempo."

It also speaks volumes about the Marlins' chances in the NL East.

Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.