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The Hiroshima Carp may not have Kenta Maeda any longer, but they still have Kris Johnson, and the West Covina, California, native is no mere consolation prize.

Johnson is in his second season with the Carp after leading NPB with a 1.85 ERA (in 194⅓ innings) last year, his first in Japan, and finishing tied for the second-most victories with 14. He also struck out 150, eighth-most in NPB.

The 31-year-old has picked up where he left off. Johnson is 2-1 through four starts this year with a 1.53 ERA. He’s also struck out 27 batters. He attributes his nice start to simply sticking to what’s been working and not deviating from that path too much.

“Just continuing what I started last year,” he told The Japan Times. “It was a good run and I want to keep it going. So I try to basically copy what I did last year.”

As much as Johnson wants to keep things the same, there is one difference.

The Carp offseason was mostly dominated by the loss of Maeda, who completed a move to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2015, Maeda was viewed as the staff ace, shouldering all of that pressure and responsibility. With him gone, and despite how beloved veteran righty Hiroki Kuroda is in Hiroshima, the way Johnson pitched last season made him heir to Maeda’s throne in the eyes of many fans.

“I’ve never been in the spot where I’ve been looked at as ‘the guy,’ ” he said. “So I try and just keep it out. I try and look at every game that I throw like every other game that I’ve pitched. It’s always going to be, the most important game you’ve thrown in your life is the next start. I’ve always just tried to keep that mindset and it kind of keeps it normal.”

While Johnson has mostly lived up to top billing in Hiroshima so far in 2016, there are a few wrinkles to be ironed out.

“Still too many walks already,” Johnson said. “I’ve got 10 in four starts. I’ve been trying to cut back, which I have been. So I’ve gone in the right direction there. Been getting into a few deep counts, which obviously will lead to the walks, been trying to cut back on that, so I can get deep into ball games.”

Johnson, who played for Wichita State in college, entered the 2016 season with a year’s worth of NPB experience to build upon. He’s been able to lean on that experience in various areas. The knowledge he gained last year has helped with the aforementioned walks issue, for instance, as Johnson already had a firm grasp on the batting style in NPB, which is more contact-oriented and an idea of what adjustments to make.

“They like swinging the bat, they like putting the ball in play,” he said. “It’s harder to get strikeouts that way. It’s the game I like to play because I like early contact, get the ball on the ground, make the defense work.”

Johnson also used his past experience in his offseason preparations.

“I think I hit the weights a little harder,” he said. “I put on probably 10 pounds (4½ kg). Everybody said I looked bigger coming in. Just trying to get a little stronger and be able to last longer in games and just little things like that.”

The laid-back Johnson didn’t seem to get too high or too low on the mound at any point last season. He was the same guy after both wins and losses, projecting a vibe that was more or less even keel. That balance seems to be in place again this year, and Carp fans are hoping the numbers he put up for their team last year return with it.

“You always want to build off your last start,” Johnson said. “If each start keeps getting better and better and better, you’re obviously going to put yourself and your team in a good spot. It’s always just a building process. Hopefully I can just keep it up.”

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