'Kid' Johnson managing, too Rookie: By adopting the mind-set of a veteran, Rule 5 draftee Mike Johnson is zeroing in on a place on the Orioles' staff.

March 09, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Mike Johnson should be wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

He's only 21 years old, and looks every bit of it. He's a skinny right-hander who last year was pitching in the Single-A South Atlantic League, in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization.

About six months ago, he was taking on a team from Greensboro on a steamy August night. By April 1, he could be taking up room in the Orioles' bullpen.

And, by all appearances, he isn't fazed in the least.

Johnson is a Rule 5 draftee who must remain on the Orioles' 25-man roster throughout the year or be offered back to Toronto for $25,000. There aren't many success stories of this type being passed around the majors, but Johnson has a real chance.

Glance at his numbers so far and it's easy to understand why.

He's allowed one run in seven innings, walked two and struck out four. He throws five pitches, all with the same confidence. And when he returns to the clubhouse, as he did Friday after three shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves, he sits quietly in front of his locker, munching on a slice of pizza and looking as if he just got through a game of catch.

"I think I'm adjusting pretty well to not being nervous," he said. "I came in here trying to put the least amount of pressure on myself as I could. That's what I've been doing lately. If you just let things happen and let your ability take over, it's going to be a lot easier than fighting yourself. I've been pretty successful at it and I don't intend to change.

"If you watch guys like Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key on the mound, they're just stone-faced. They don't show any emotion. They know what they have to do and they go about their business and get the job done. Having those guys in camp makes you want to be like that even more, especially seeing them person-to-person instead of just on TV."

Johnson was born in and still lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Though he also played volleyball in high school, baseball had been his love since he was 6. And he became good enough that the Blue Jays, with Pat Gillick as general manager, selected him in the 17th round of the 1993 draft.

It wasn't until the following year that he was given the chance to be a full-time starter, at Medicine Hat of the Pioneer League. Johnson didn't exactly burst onto the scene, going 1-3 with a 4.46 ERA and eight strikeouts in 36 innings. He went back to the bullpen in '95 and allowed just one run after Aug. 18, spanning 14 innings.

That performance vaulted him to Single-A last year, when he led the Hagerstown Suns in innings pitched (163) and wins (11). Johnson, with a fastball in the upper 80s and the calm of a surgeon, was getting noticed.

Scout Jim Gilbert watched him at Hagerstown and passed along a strong recommendation to Gillick, who was approaching his second year as Orioles GM.

"I remembered him from four years ago. He was a good kid and it looked like he had come along, so we decided to take a flier on him," Gillick said.

"Being successful in the major leagues is mental as well as physical; having a presence and controlling your emotions, not getting too high or too low. And he seems to be able to do that."

Johnson began to wear down over the winter while pitching in the Australian League, when he struck out 77 batters in 75 innings. He didn't throw much during his two weeks at home, and the inactivity made his arm feel tight when he got to Fort Lauderdale. But he's becoming stronger with every appearance, and so is the likelihood that he will accompany the team north.

"He's definitely in the running for a spot," said manager Davey Johnson.

"He's got the same release point on about four pitches, which is good, and he has good arm speed on his changeup. He seems to be able to read the hitters pretty good and is not intimidated. He's showing good poise. And I always say, any time a guy can throw a couple pitches over that are big-league pitches, he can pitch at any level."

Said catcher Chris Hoiles: "I hadn't seen him before this year, but I'm very impressed with the way he throws and with his composure out there. He throws strikes, gets ahead and finishes them off. That's what he's supposed to do."

Then comes another mention of the Orioles' ace. "Mike Mussina was a lot like him when he first came up," Hoiles said. "He wasn't TC awed by anything, he wasn't overmatched by any circumstances. It's going to be interesting to see, if and when the tide starts to turn the other way, how he'll handle it. But he's the same when things are going good. He doesn't walk about here with his chest sticking out or anything like that. If things go south for him for a game or so, I think he'll be able to handle it."

Pitching coach Ray Miller keeps bracing for the day when the jitters get the best of Johnson.

"I was afraid when he first went out there," Miller said. "Looking at him before the game and the day before the game, I saw how nervous he was and I thought I'd have to make a trip out there, but when he got to the mound, he was kind of calm. And he's been that way every time. He's nervous before, then he's fine.

"You look at the numbers and it scares you a little bit because the most he had pitched were 44 innings until last year, and that was A ball."

As Johnson took the last bite of his pizza Friday and watched some Orioles trickle into the clubhouse, he finally started to sound his age. For a change, the stoicism had given way -- albeit ever so slightly -- to youthful excitement.

"It has to be every young kid's dream to pitch in the major leagues," he said. "I'm getting the opportunity to pitch with future Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken, and soon Roberto [Alomar] will be back. It's just unbelievable."

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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