Indians, Miller stop Johnson short, 7-1

Down 5-1, he's pulled after whiffing Alomar, Ramirez to end 2nd

August 15, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Maybe Jason Johnson has hit a wall, as most young pitchers with limited starting experience are prone to do.

Maybe he's just getting hit.

Neither scenario bodes well for the Orioles. Soon after manager Ray Miller expressed a preference to reduce his staff to 11, he dipped into his bullpen early yesterday after Johnson labored through two innings in a 7-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians before 43,103 at Jacobs Field.

The defeat was the 12th in the past 18 games for the Orioles (51-65). It also lowered their record in this ballpark to 9-23 since it opened in 1994, with five losses coming this season. These clubs don't meet in Baltimore until September.

Miller can only hope Johnson has straightened out his problems by then. Johnson can only hope he's given more rope.

Johnson (3-7) has lost three of his last four starts, each time failing to go more than four innings. The past two outings have been brutal. He gave up nine runs and 12 hits in four innings in Monday's loss to Tampa Bay, and fell into immediate trouble yesterday.

Johnson needed 37 pitches to get through the first inning, when the Indians sent eight batters to the plate. They loaded the bases on a one-out single and two walks, and Jim Thome cleared them with his fourth career grand slam, and the eighth hit by Cleveland this season. It wasn't until Johnson walked the seventh batter, Richie Sexson, that pitching coach Bruce Kison was sent to the mound.

Enrique Wilson popped out to end the inning, but Kenny Lofton singled with one out in the second and Omar Vizquel followed with a run-scoring double to left-center field. Johnson struck out the last two hitters, Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez, increasing his pitch count to 62 and bringing Doug Johns into the game to start the third.

"I finally start to get into a groove in the second inning and they pull the plug on me. There's nothing I can do about that," said Johnson, who has made 22 starts, the first eight at Triple-A Rochester.

"I was finally getting on top of the ball. The first inning I was on the side of it and everything was up. That's why Thome hit the home run. In the second inning I started getting on top of it and driving it straight down toward home plate. You get taken out in the second inning, you can't be happy, especially after I finally started to feel good. I was ready to go at least another four."

Kison informed Johnson that he was coming out of the game.

"I had told them I was sick [with the flu] before the game, but that had nothing to do with the way I was pitching," Johnson said. "When I'm on the mound I don't feel sick at all. My nose kept running, but my throat didn't hurt or anything like that. I felt strong in the bullpen. I would let somebody know if I couldn't pitch."

Miller cited the number of pitches Johnson had thrown and the inability to throw his breaking ball for strikes as cause for his removal.

"You can be a little patient with that and just throw fastball/changeup, but those were up, too. Seven base runners and 62 pitches in two innings, you go to somebody else," Miller said.

"To me, it looked like he was trying to be a little bit too fine. But the bottom line is, and I've been saying it all year, you can't defense walks and home runs. There's nothing you can do.

"Even though he struck out the last two guys, I've got [David] Justice and Thome coming up and they've already got five runs on the board. We're not going to score a whole lot against this club unless a whole bunch of people get to hitting."

Looking at the 62 he already had thrown, Johnson said, "That leaves me at least another 60 pitches before I'm done. I can go four innings on 60 pitches once I get in a groove."

Asked if he sensed that Miller has lost confidence in him, Johnson said, "I don't know. I hope not."

Johnson has logged 72 2/3 innings with the Orioles, plus another 44 1/3 at Rochester. If there's a wall in front of him, Johnson said he hasn't reached it yet.

"I've thrown this many innings before. I've thrown more. I'm not tired, I'm not weak. I'm still strong," he said.

Miller doesn't see a drop in Johnson's velocity, an indication that he's not fatigued.

"There's just no breaking ball," Miller said.

Johns brought some calm to the game in the third inning, retiring the side on a strikeout and two grounders, but Alomar heaped more abuse on his former team with a two-run double in the fourth. Alomar had driven in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of Friday's game, then made a diving stop on the outfield grass and threw as he spun on his knees for the final out.

The early barrage assured Steve Karsay of his first career win over the Orioles. Karsay (9-1) was making his first start of the year after 42 relief appearances. He had won eight straight decisions since losing on Opening Day, but was 0-3 with a 6.10 ERA in eight previous outings against the Orioles.

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