Johnson, shaken by shake-up, proves worth Unrattled pitcher rolls past writing on wall

August 02, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- Dave Johnson got the message, even if it wasn't directed specifically at him. The wholesale roster changes that transformed the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff earlier this week were the first indication that some people were coming down to their last chances.

The departure of Jeff Ballard and Jeff Robinson made room in the starting rotation for Johnson and rookie Mike Mussina, but the pitching shake-up came with this caveat from manager John Oates: "We might not be finished yet."

That's why Johnson needed to prove Wednesday night in Seattle that he isn't finished yet, either.

"I don't think it was a message to me," Johnson said, "but more of a message to the overall ballclub. Ballard had some time in. Robby's got five years in. They're saying, 'We don't care who you are.'

"Obviously, there are some players who aren't going anywhere, but it doesn't matter what you've done in the past. We need you to do it now. We need to move forward."

Johnson was one of the players who was not doing that. He won only one of his first four starts this year before being exiled to the bullpen in early May. He returned last week from nearly three months on the disabled list to give up three home runs in a three-inning relief appearance against the Oakland Athletics. His start against the Mariners Wednesday night may not have been do or die, but it was time to do something positive.

So, Johnson went out and pitched 6 1/3 innings, giving up two runs on seven hits to keep the Orioles close enough to score a 4-2 victory in 11 innings and end a five-game losing streak.

"Right now, they're giving me an opportunity to go out there and perform, and that's what I need to do myself," Johnson said. "I won 13 games last year. I need to prove to myself and to the ballclub that it wasn't a fluke."

Johnson was the winningest pitcher on the club last year. He might have had more if not for an injury late in the season, but he is one of those players with the wrong stuff. He doesn't throw particularly hard, so his place in the club's long-term plans always seems to be in question.

Therein lies the importance of the final two months of the 1991 season. Johnson needs to whittle down his 8.07 ERA and pump up his 1-3 record if he is to hold his place on an Orioles pitching staff that seems to get younger by the day.

"They've shown some confidence in me, giving me the opportunity come in and get 10 to 12 starts," Johnson said. "I need to go out there and give them a quality start 70 or 75 percent of the time, so they can see that next year I can help the team."

Oates was impressed with Johnson's return, even if the 30-year-old right-hander did not emerge triumphant. Johnson left trailing, 2-1, in the seventh inning, but the Orioles rallied to tie the game in the ninth and win on a two-run single by catcher Chris Hoiles.

"Any time you hold this club to two runs, swinging the way they are, you've done a job," Oates said. "Dave has struggled against this team, and he hasn't pitched a lot of innings at this level lately. He deserves a lot of credit."

Johnson knew what he had to do, and it didn't figure to be easy. In his previous three starts -- all in April -- he had given up 16 earned runs in 12 innings. In five career appearances against Seattle, he was 0-3 with a 9.67 ERA. The Mariners entered the game batting a combined .403 against him.

"Every time someone went up to the plate, the scoreboard would flash his career average against me," Johnson said. "I didn't see one that was below .400."

He carried a 1-0 lead into the fifth inning before Ken Griffey Jr. tied the game with a two-out, RBI single. Right fielder Jay Buhner gave the Mariners the lead with a long home run in the sixth.

Johnson left in the seventh with no chance to get the victory. He would have taken the loss the Orioles had not came back with a run in the ninth on a hit by Randy Milligan that bounced over left fielder Greg Briley for a triple.

The home-run ball has dogged Johnson for the past two years. He gave up a major-league high 30 homers in 1990 and has surrendered nine in just 35 2/3 innings this year, but he's treating Wednesday as if it were the first day of the rest of his career.

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