O's Guzman gets in sync, sinks Braves

Jelling with Johnson, right-hander steps up with 6-hit shutout, 5-0

`That's vintage Juan'

3 HRs in first send O's to 3rd straight road win

June 13, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The starting pitcher and catcher met at the mound not to settle a problem but to shake hands. Juan Guzman and Charles Johnson reached a better understanding yesterday and the Orioles benefited with a 5-0 defeat of the Atlanta Braves before 47,923 at Turner Field.

More than Guzman's first shutout in almost 11 months and more than the Orioles' first three-game road win streak this season, the performance demonstrated a working relationship rarely seen between between these two teammates from different leagues.

As Guzman (3-4) clamped his arm around Johnson's shoulder during a postgame handshake, he told him, "I want to pitch this way from now on."

Wouldn't the Orioles love it? Coming less than 18 hours after Sidney Ponson completed Friday night's 6-2 win, Guzman's 109-pitch performance gave the Orioles their first back-to-back complete games since Sept. 26-29, 1995, the dying days of the Phil Regan era.

For a second consecutive game the Orioles played sharply while the Braves committed fundamental mistakes. Rather than make three errors and throw two wild pitches as on Friday, the Braves gave away three outs on the bases. The 24-36 Orioles responded with home runs in the first inning from Brady Anderson, Mike Bordick and Will Clark for a 4-0 lead. Coupled with Wednesday's win in Florida, the Orioles can count their first three-game road binge since last Aug. 13-15.

Pitching ahead and pitching quickly, Guzman (3-4) spaced six singles -- two during a bizarre three-batter second inning, four with two outs and only one to the top third of the Braves' lineup.

Guzman's three strikeouts included two of third baseman Chipper Jones. Jones entered the series with more walks than strikeouts but his fourth inning at-bat marked his fifth strikeout in five at-bats. Guzman walked only two and didn't allow a runner to reach third base.

"That's vintage Juan right there. He was throwing strikes and keeping the ball down and keeping people off balance. The four runs helped, I'm sure," said Orioles manager Ray Miller.

Guzman has recovered from an 0-3 April to compile a 2.81 ERA in his past eight starts. Whether he may be auditioning for a future trade to a contender is uncertain, but for now the Orioles will gladly accept his turnaround as evidence of a healing starting rotation.

"I don't know where I'm going to be," Guzman said. "It doesn't matter. I've been through all types of situations. I know how to pitch and I know I can help any team win. I would love to stay here. Even if we're not doing well right now, it's a great organization and I love these guys. They're great people. I'm hoping I can stay here and help this team get to the playoffs."

For now, Guzman will settle with his expanded comfort zone. Johnson never caught Guzman during spring training. When the season started, the battery had to settle on everything from pitch selection to how quickly Johnson gave signs. Guzman crossed up Johnson several times, not only irritating him but almost hurting him once.

"I didn't know him and he didn't know me," Guzman said. "Charles wasn't familiar with how I like to pitch in certain situations. It makes it easier when a pitcher and catcher know each other. That's starting to happen between us. It's a much more comfortable situation, I think."

Said Johnson: "Every pitcher has his own comfort zone. Every pitcher has his own place where he wants to go for a strike with a game on the line. As a catcher you have to know that. I think I'm starting to learn that now with all the guys on this team. It takes time to learn."

This interleague stretch is like coming home for Johnson, a former Florida Marlin and Los Angeles Dodger. He won Gold Gloves and a World Series in the NL and became keenly aware of hitters' strengths and weaknesses.

"There are times he [Guzman] will go with me and there are times when he won't go with me," Johnson said. "That's where the trust factor comes in. Maybe there's something he's not seeing that I see. Then he goes with me. That comes with time, knowing each other and trusting each other."

This time, Guzman, a career AL pitcher with the Blue Jays and Orioles, embraced his catcher's input rather than challenge it. The result was Guzman's first shutout since July 30, the day before the Blue Jays traded him to the Orioles for Nerio Rodriguez.

"Before the game he decided he was going to go with me because I knew most of the guys," Johnson said. "I think later in the ballgame Juan got a better idea of some of the hitters, shook me off a few times and got some outs. Today was a great example of what he can do when he keeps the ball down. I've never seen Juan get ground balls before."

Said Clark: "He threw the ball well in spring training but he did not have three pitches working while working both sides of the plate like he did today."

The Braves didn't produce a fly-ball out until the sixth inning. Guzman ended up with 14 ground-ball outs and never asked his defense for an exceptional play.

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