HAGERSTOWN -- Through almost eight seasons in the minor leagues, Dave Johnson never lost sight of his objective.
He finally made it to the majors with his hometown team in 1989, the season of dreams for the Baltimore Orioles.
But last night he returned to Class AA baseball and received what he called "a little dose of reality. When you come back down here, it makes you remember where you were when you struggled.
"It's a different perspective when you look around and don't see that many people in the stands," Johnson said. "I remember this level when the same number looked like a lot of people and I was happy just to be this high."
Johnson didn't struggle at all in his first start on a rehabilitation assignment with the Hagerstown Suns, pitching five scoreless innings in an Eastern League game against the Williamsport Bills.
He made 50 pitches, the majority of them fastballs, endured only one serious jam, allowed three singles and left with a 5-0 lead.
The Suns went on to win, 7-0.
The outing was a major step forward in his attempt to come back from a groin injury that has kept him on the Orioles' disabled list since May 19.
"I wish I could have done that when I was in AA," he said. "I might have gotten up faster. I felt good, threw a lot of fastballs and kept it down. When I do that, I'm usually effective."
This has been a lost season for Johnson, a folk hero in the final series of '89 when he replaced injured Pete Harnisch and pitched his heart out against the Toronto Blue Jays, leaving with the lead in a game the Orioles eventually lost.
Johnson followed that with a 13-victory year in 1990, high on the staff, but went to spring training again as the stepchild.
"Same old stuff," he said. "People were still wondering if I'd make the club."
After four starts, including a disaster at Chicago when he was charged with nine runs in four innings after waiting out a two-hour rain delay, Johnson wound up in the bullpen.
"I didn't throw the ball well in the pen, no doubt," he said. "But my job is as a starter on that club. I'm looking now to prove I'm healthy and be the consistent seven-inning guy the staff needs.
"Then they can stick me back in there and I can give them what I'm capable of. It works both ways. If we can get some type of consistency out of our starters, we can make the second half a lot of fun."
Johnson had a predicament in the third inning when he permitted two singles, but left fielder Ed Yacopino caught Loy McBride rounding second too far after the second single and threw him out. Johnson ended the inning by tagging speedy Pat Howell on the sleeve as he approached the bag after a grounder to first.
"They told me some of those guys could motor," he said. "I knew he'd beat me to the bag, so I tried to beat him to the line."
Johnson's assignment is scheduled to continue here Sunday when he faces the London Tigers. He was so encouraged that he wants to start instead for the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
"Everything went better than I had planned," he said. "I'm encouraged by what happened with Ben [McDonald], and I'm looking to be in a similar situation. They made room for Ben. Hopefully, they'll make room for me."
Johnson said the next two or three days will determine whether he has any repercussions from the injury and said he will return to Hagerstown Friday to long toss, instead of throw off the mound.
"I want to pitch in New York," he said. "But that's not my decision. I don't think the people up there are ready to do that.
"All I can do is put myself in a position to make them feel I'm ready."
Johnson was scheduled to go 50 to 60 pitches, but no more. He went the minimum.
"What difference does it make if you face one or two more?" he said. "Everything went well."