Johnson makes start toward rotation spot

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Three shutout innings help his case

outfield is flying

Baseball

March 05, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The changes in Jason Johnson this spring have gone beyond the blond highlights, chin hair and No. 16. He's pitching with confidence, and showing every intention of beginning the season in the Orioles' starting rotation.

If Opening Day were tomorrow, he'd most likely be there.

Johnson gave manager Mike Hargrove more to consider yesterday with three shutout innings in the Orioles' 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He allowed only one hit -- a leadoff single by Marquis Grissom -- and walked Gary Sheffield, both in the first inning. His two strikeouts came against the last two batters he faced, including Grissom.

"Jason was good," Hargrove said. "He threw strikes. The only hitter I thought he was tentative with was Sheffield. Other than that, Jason threw his fastball over, he got ahead of hitters, he had a good breaking ball, a couple of good changeups. It was good to see him do it."

Good enough to make him the favorite to join the rotatation?

"Way, way too early," Hargrove said.

Johnson is trying to distance himself from last season, when he twice was demoted to Triple-A Rochester, lost his first eight decisions to tie a club record and finished 1-10.

"I changed everything. Last year wasn't one of the best I ever had. There was room for change," he said.

There wasn't much he'd want to change about yesterday's outing, besides some early jitters.

"It's really good to go out there and overcome the nerves and get three shutout innings," he said. "I was nervous because I wasn't used to facing hitters I didn't know. It was a little bit different."

Strike zone aids hitters, too

As promised, major-league umpires are enforcing the higher strike zone, which is supposed to benefit pitchers and speed up games.

Not so fast.

Who really is gaining an advantage here?

Umpires no longer seem as willing to call strikes on the outside corners, which pitchers like Atlanta's Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine have been stretching out of proportion for years. That's certainly no way to keep scores down and quicken the pace.

"It's actually more helpful to the hitters," said Chris Richard, who started at first base in Friday's opener and in right field the next day. "I've seen pitches a couple inches off the plate that last year probably would have been called strikes. They're calling the width of the actual plate. They're not going to give [strikes] off the plate. That's nice to see, that they're calling it true. I don't mind it.

"I'd rather have them call high strikes than ones that are four inches off the plate."

Fleet fleet

It won't be the alignment that's unveiled on Opening Day, but the Orioles produced an outfield yesterday that was built for speed.

With many of the regulars staying behind in Fort Lauderdale, the Orioles started Delino DeShields in left, Eugene Kingsale in center and Luis Matos in right.

Of those three players, DeShields has the best chance of being in the same position in April. But, he remains a strong candidate to be traded before the club heads north, or the designated hitter if he stays with the Orioles. Melvin Mora is projected as the regular center fielder, and Richard could wind up in right. Matos, who ended the 2000 season as the regular center fielder, is battling to avoid an assignment at Triple-A Rochester.

Matos made a diving catch in right-center field to end the seventh and take an extra-base hit away from Jeff Branson. He had shifted to left earlier in the game before going back to right.

But can he field?

Half of the Jay Gibbons equation has become pretty clear: The Rule 5 draft pick can flat-out hit, though he'll be tested with more off-speed stuff as the spring schedule progresses. But what about his defense at first base?

That's where Gibbons, who resembles a left-handed Steve Garvey, needs the most work. And he's getting it from bench coach Sam Perlozzo, who's responsible for the infielders.

"After batting practice [Saturday], Sammy spent about 30 minutes with him out on Field 2," Hargrove said. "The kid's got good hands. He's just got some bad habits mechanically that we've got to try to get him out of. And I think we can because he's coachable, he's intelligent."

Gibbons fielded a sharp bouncer in the fifth inning yesterday and threw home for the force, and snared a liner to his left in the ninth. He also singled and struck out, making him 4-for-5 this spring.

Quick hits

The number: 1 - Runs allowed by Orioles starters in nine innings in the first three exhibition games.

Injury update: David Segui made his first start yesterday after straining his right hamstring on Wednesday. Reliever Alan Mills threw batting practice for the first time on Saturday while recovering from right shoulder surgery. Cal Ripken (fractured rib) and Mark Nussbeck (shoulder tendinitis) remain two weeks away from returning. ... Luis Rivera will be examined today by Dr. James Andrews, who's expected to perform arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum in the pitcher's right shoulder.

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