Johnson refuses to yield

September 12, 1990|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

Here's the first prediction for the 1991 season:

Dave Johnson will crack the Orioles' starting rotation.

Oh, club officials might make a trade or two. Heaven forbid, they might even sign a free agent. But if Johnson is still with the Orioles at the start of spring training, only a fool would bet against him.

"He'll take on all comers," pitching coach Al Jackson proclaimed, doing his best Don King. "He'll take his chances. Somebody's got to beat him out."

All the Orioles' Rocky did last night was pitch seven shutout innings -- in his first start since Aug. 14, against the highest-scoring team in the majors, coming off a debilitating lower back strain.

All right, so Detroit rallied for a 2-1 victory in the eighth, getting back-to-back singles to open the inning against Curt Schilling, then Alan Trammell's two-run double off Gregg Olson with one out.

Really, is anyone still keeping score? Schilling suffered his first loss, Olson his fourth blown save. But for the Orioles, the story was Johnson, he of the true grit.

"It was just a great effort, a real big-hearted effort," manager Frank Robinson said. "He never ceases to amaze you. He's a battler, a survivor. You couldn't ask for anything more than he gave us tonight."

So what about next year? Johnson, 30, went nearly a month without starting, but he remains the club's leading winner at 11-8. His future would appear secure, but he spent 7 1/2 years in the minors before last season, and he knows there are no guarantees.

"I've proved something, but I don't know exactly what it is," the Middle River native said. "It's in the eyes of the beholder. It's up to them. Hopefully I'll go into spring training as one of the starting pitchers. But that decision is a long ways away. A lot of things could happen in the offseason."

For the moment, Johnson would prefer to focus on the possibility of the Orioles regaining third place (forget it, the team is now 4 1/2 games behind Detroit). But he has assessed his status with unusual candor in the past, and Robinson can't understand why he's so concerned.

Johnson has allowed 26 homers, tied with Houston's Mike Scott for most in the majors, but the rest of his portfolio is impressive: He is averaging a club-low 2.06 walks per nine innings. And he has pitched three of the club's eight complete games.

The only other Orioles pitchers with records above .500 are Olson, Ben McDonald and the injured Mark Williamson. Johnson has a 4.19 earned run average -- not great -- but with better luck he might have a few more wins. The Orioles have scored 13 runs in his eight losses.

"Why is he so insecure?" Robinson asked. "Maybe he feeds off that. But he has to understand, he's here having some success. We're not stupid. I would never say he's going to be traded. And if he's not traded, why wouldn't he be here?

"Maybe he feels he has to do that to keep himself going. There's nothing wrong with that. But it gets a little old. Joe Montana was saying the same thing Monday night, saying he might lose his job. I said, 'Yeah, right.'"

Johnson is not Joe Montana.

Two years ago, he was a truck driver.

"It took me a long time to get here," he said. "I just feel every outing I'm trying to prove I belong here. Players listen to radio and TV, they read the papers. You don't see people saying, 'We know this guy will be in the rotation next year.' They don't even mention my name.

"If they think that, maybe the ballclub does, too. It's always been that way for me. It's nothing new. It's something I've handled throughout my career. I have to continue handling it, go out and pitch every game like it's my last.

"I don't want to sit back two years from now and think, 'I thought I had it made, but I didn't bear down,'" Johnson said. "I don't ever want to second-guess myself like that."

But for all the Orioles' talk about their surplus of pitching, only McDonald and Pete Harnisch appear locks for the 1991 rotation. Everyone else is a question -- including Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki, both of whom must prove they've overcome arm trouble.

Robinson has said the club needs to acquire a veteran pitcher to stabilize the rotation, either through a trade or free agency. But whatever happens, Jackson believes Johnson is ideally suited to be the club's fourth or fifth starter. Certainly he has proven that much this season.

"He's been a reliable pitcher," Jackson said. "He hung in there longer than I thought. Some guys show you flashes. But he's had long stretches. He's shown me he's a major-league pitcher."

Last night was simply the latest evidence, and it came under trying circumstances. Johnson had pitched only once since coming off the disabled list on Sept. 4, failing to retire either of the two Seattle hitters he faced.

In fact, it was his first scoreless start of the year. The Tigers' offense the first seven innings amounted to six hits and two walks. Lloyd Moseby was stranded after a leadoff double in the second. Two innings later he tried to score from first on a double by former Oriole Larry Sheets, and was thrown out by shortstop Cal Ripken.

Johnson left the game after throwing 94 pitches -- "he did more than what he was asked," Robinson said. Steve Finley gave the Orioles their 1-0 lead in the seventh with his first career homer at Memorial Stadium. But the game slipped away in the eighth.

By that time, the Orioles' Rocky had hit the showers.

Yo Adrian, he'll be back.

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