Rocky sequel may KO Johnson

Struggling young Oriole is pitching himself out of rotation, maybe roster

March 28, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Right-hander Jason Johnson arrived at spring training as the apparent No. 4 starter in the Orioles' rotation. Now, there is a question whether he'll even make the club.

Johnson turned in another in a series of rocky outings yesterday, giving up five runs, nine hits and five walks over four innings in a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. He's scheduled to make one more exhibition start -- against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday in Chattanooga, Tenn. -- and his place on the roster could hang in the balance.

"He has not had a good outing this spring yet," said manager Mike Hargrove. "Jason would be the first to tell you that he hasn't had a good spring. He's gone out there six times and he's 0-for-6. He needs to have a good outing the next time out."

Hargrove wouldn't come right out and say it, but the implication was clear. Johnson needs to make a statement in his next start or he could be opening the season with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.

The Orioles have navigated through the first five weeks of spring training under the assumption that Johnson would be in the rotation. He even moved up a notch in the projected rotation when veteran Scott Erickson underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

There was a place in the rotation that was his to lose, and -- judging from his overall numbers -- he may have lost it. He has worked 22 innings this spring and allowed 52 base runners, or 2.4 per inning. He is 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA.

Meanwhile, the three pitchers who were vying for the other two slots in the rotation -- Pat Rapp, Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes -- all have pitched effectively.

Barring a reversal of fortune for Johnson, it appears that all three will open the season in the rotation, which would likely push Johnson off the 25-man roster entirely.

"There are a lot of things we can do," Hargrove said, "whether that means Rochester or the bullpen, there's a lot of things we can do."

Moments later, however, Hargrove ruled out a bullpen role for Johnson, which means he'll either be in the rotation or he'll be back in the minor leagues.

Johnson's frustration was apparent. He showed some improvement in his previous appearance against the New York Mets, but exhibited very little command of the strike zone yesterday.

He criticized himself for failing to pitch aggressively, and promised that things would be different against the Reds on Saturday.

"Nobody wants to have a start like I had today, but everybody does," Johnson said. "It's just my job to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The original plan had him starting April 6 in the third regular-season game against the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards. Now, it appears that Hargrove is leaning toward moving Rapp into that assignment, which could even affect Johnson's start on Saturday since Rapp's final exhibition appearance would have to be moved up to line up for the final game of the season-opening series against the Indians.

If Johnson gets one more chance, he said that he will pitch aggressively against the Reds, even if he has to knock down Ken Griffey to get him off the plate.

"I know it will be fine," he said. "It's all mental. If I know that I can get it done when the time comes, then I can."

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