Marathoner in a mask

Orioles: Charles Johnson is catching no breaks since backup Lenny Webster got hurt, but neither are the pitchers facing the hot-hitting backstop.

May 25, 1999|By ROCH KUBATKO | ROCH KUBATKO,SUN STAFF

When Lenny Webster was injured for the second time this season, spraining his right ankle while avoiding a pitch thrown near his head, catcher Charles Johnson figured he was in the Orioles' lineup for the long haul.

He just had no idea it would be this long.

"I assumed I'd catch five games and get a day off, something like that," he says.

It's been nothing like that and nothing like what Johnson has experienced in his five previous seasons. Forget baseballs. Johnson is simply trying to catch his breath.

Yesterday's day off provided something rare for the four-time Gold Glove winner -- rest. He's played in 19 straight games, including the May 3 exhibition against the Cuban all-stars. Only twice during that stretch has he been out of the lineup, and in both instances he was rushed into duty.

He donned the gear on May 6 after Webster was struck in the wrist by the bat of the Chicago White Sox's Ray Durham while making a throw to second. Six nights later, in Webster's first game back, he strained the tendons in his ankle while twisting away from a high Dwight Gooden fastball and went on the disabled list.

"Even when they try to give me time off, they can't," Johnson says, grinning.

"I've never had a stretch like this. It's a pretty good one."

Where his offense is concerned, it's been a torrid one. In the 10 games Johnson has started since Webster's second injury, he's hitting .324 (11-for-34) with five homers and 10 RBIs. In the 18 games he's played since Webster last went a full nine innings, May 4 against Chicago, Johnson is hitting .317 (19-for-60) with nine homers, 18 RBIs and 14 runs scored.

Going back a little further, Johnson is hitting .358 (24-for-67) since April 30, raising his average from a season-low .149 to .272.

Instead of wearing down from playing in 35 of the club's first 43 games, he's wearing out opposing pitchers. But don't be fooled. Johnson's body provides a constant reminder of his demanding workload, which included another start Saturday afternoon after handling Sidney Ponson's complete game the previous night.

"It's been a grind, really," he says. "The hardest times have been the day games after the night games. That's been the hardest as far as my body feeling tired. I feel it mostly in my legs. A lot of times, like Saturday, I'll feel my legs getting tired. You're hoping for a quick game. I start to feel it usually at night, and the next day I can feel my body being a little bit fatigued."

Webster has seen the signs, like a few pitches scooting past a catcher who usually is airtight behind the plate.

"We talked about it before [Sunday's] game. He came over and I said, `You were exhausted yesterday, weren't you?' And he looks at me and starts laughing and said, `Yeah, dude, I was struggling. I was just praying to get through it,' " Webster says.

"I've never seen a ball go between his legs. Usually when that happens, it's an indication that you're tired. He took one that ricocheted off his shoulder, and he goes sliding into the dugout. You never see him do that, either. That's an indication he's a little tired. I sympathize with him, and right now I'm sour and bitter because I should be there to pick him up."

Webster can relate better than most, because he had to play regularly when Chris Hoiles was injured last season. The innings piled up, and they took a toll.

"It's tough. For me, I felt it in my legs and my lower back," Webster says. "You really can appreciate a guy going out and swinging the bat under those circumstances, and right now he's swinging the bat real well."

"It does make it a little easier to go out there," Johnson says. "You want to stay in there and keep doing the best you can. You've got to keep pushing it, but there comes a point where you've got to say, `OK, enough's enough.' "

He had that chance on Saturday, when manager Ray Miller summoned Johnson to his office and asked if he needed a rest. Rookie Tommy Davis was poised to make his first major-league start. All Johnson needed to do was speak up.

"I told him I wanted to get back out there and go at it again. I figure I've got to push it," he says.

He's been careful not to press his luck. Johnson, who singled and scored in his first at-bat Saturday, has mostly avoided taking extra batting practice to preserve whatever energy he brings into each game.

"It probably makes me concentrate even more, because, when your body gets tired, it kind of drifts. It doesn't do what you want it to do. I really try to focus hard on maintaining what I've been working on," he says.

That means staying on top of the ball and reducing the length of his swing, with hitting coach Terry Crowley providing the constant reminders. Prone to getting underneath everything, Johnson now rips line drives that carry to all fields and, occasionally, over the fence.

"When you look at this ballpark and his strength with the short swing, he can do a lot of damage," Miller says.

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