O's yet to turn it up on hill

Johnson shaky again, keeping rotation a work in progress

Pitcher upset, not worried

Mercedes, Maduro making cases to step in

March 13, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It remains far too early for panic, but Jason Johnson's troubled three-inning start in yesterday's 9-8 exhibition win over the New York Mets might warrant the first seeds of concern over the Orioles' slow-forming starting rotation.

Noting Johnson's 71 pitches, manager Mike Hargrove emphasized the right-hander's need to work ahead in counts more often. Left unsaid was a rotation lacking its most durable member for at least the season's first month must avoid overburdening a delicate bullpen.

Johnson surrendered four earned runs on seven hits and two walks yesterday, an unsightly pitching line but one also marred by well-placed singles just over the infield and a looping pop that fell on the right-field line for a double. The result did nothing to dent his confidence.

"Am I upset? Yes. I'm upset by the line. But it's also spring training," said Johnson, who has allowed 10 earned runs and 22 base runners in nine exhibition innings. "Am I worried? No. Because I know I'm going to be absolutely ready by the time the season starts. I'm going to get my work in. It's still March 12. We've got half a month left before the season starts. I can guarantee you right now that I will be ready."

Johnson has made three appearances -- each marked by inconsistent mechanics and poor control. Yesterday, Johnson said he struggled for almost two innings to find his curve. Yet, it was a three-run third in which he seemed to fight himself. The Mets reached him for five hits and scored on a wild breaking pitch.

Trouble locating his fastball forced Johnson to throw breaking balls in hitter's counts. Though pleased with a knuckle-curve, he could not throw his conventional breaking pitch for strikes. A slider also presented problems.

The first month of camp demands patience, a philosophy Hargrove has repeated frequently. But he also says the time is close for evaluations to begin forming.

"Jason needs to get outs earlier in counts. Number one, it's easier to play behind someone who makes things happen earlier in counts. And you don't want pitch counts getting to 71 in three innings," Hargrove said.

Johnson, yet to pitch a complete major-league season, entered camp as perhaps the biggest wild card within a reconfigured rotation. He remains so.

Johnson fared well as last season's fifth starter, winning five of his last seven starts. The Orioles penciled him in as their fourth starter behind Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson before arriving here Feb. 17. Since, Erickson has undergone arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips from his right elbow. The resulting shuffle has promoted Johnson to No. 3 starter while the Orioles wait for de facto No. 4 starter Pat Rapp to make a delayed second appearance today.

Rapp missed a turn while dealing with an infection that cost him a start last week. The infection made it difficult for Rapp to breathe while exercising. He threw his first side session in almost a week Saturday and still hasn't participated in pitchers' normal running drills.

Mussina has been sharp and Ponson inconsistent due to his experimenting with a new breaking pitch. Hargrove wants to start filling in the other pieces soon.

"Bullpens are overworked for various reasons, one of them being starters leaving the game too early. But I think our starters will give us enough innings that that won't happen," Hargrove said.

The rotation's best news has so far come from the bottom, where Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes continue to brawl for the fifth spot. Or possibly its fourth.

Maduro has pitched well in two of three appearances, and Mercedes ran his string of shutout innings to eight with a strong three-inning showing yesterday. Hargrove said last week that both pitchers could make the Opening Day roster "especially with Scotty unavailable."

Hargrove has projected carrying an 11-man staff to open the season. Such an arrangement might necessitate Rapp agreeing to a minor-league assignment to start the season with Maduro or Mercedes assuming the No. 4 role. Hargrove intends to adopt a five-man rotation by the second week.

Maduro must make the club or be exposed to irrevocable waivers.

Of Mercedes, Hargrove said: "He's right in the middle of it. We're looking at him seriously in the fourth or fifth spot. He continues to go out, throw strikes and get a lot of ground balls."

"The thing for me is to show I am healthy, because they know what I can do," said Mercedes, who experienced arm problems while with the Milwaukee Brewers but caught the Orioles' attention with a powerful showing in the Dominican Winter League. "So far, things have gone great."

Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations, continues to search for outside help. He has attempted to cultivate talks with the Colorado Rockies for one of several veterans. With the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels searching for second base help, he may also try to showcase Delino DeShields as a lure for pitching. The Orioles helped themselves in similar fashion at the end of last spring by dealing outfield prospect Danny Clyburn to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Johnson.

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