FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Mike Hargrove isn't much for battlefield commissions, but after watching Jason Johnson's six-inning performance yesterday against the Montreal Expos, the Orioles manager referred to Johnson's place in the rotation as "stating the obvious."
"Jason certainly has done nothing to hurt his cause. He's pitched well this spring and done a good job," Hargrove said after the Orioles' 3-2 win bumped their exhibition record to 13-7. "He's got a couple more outings and we'll see what develops. But I think at this point - while I don't want to make it official - it would be very difficult for me not to put Jason on the ballclub with the way he's thrown."
Yesterday's outing lowered Johnson's spring ERA to a team-best 2.05 and left him with only 24 base runners allowed in 22 innings.
Johnson's turnabout from outcast to No. 4 starter represents one of this camp's most remarkable stories. His stock plummeted in 2000 when he was optioned to Rochester on March 28, then returned to go 1-10 with the Orioles. Yesterday he offered one of the most convincing performances of camp when he limited the Expos to five hits without a walk while striking out four. Most impressive to Hargrove, the lanky right-hander constructed the effort without command of his best pitch, a curveball, suggesting Johnson is a pitcher no longer prone to panic.
"I'm ready," Johnson said. "My first couple outings I was working on stuff to make sure I had it working during games. I feel I'm ready to pitch."
It was after six appearances last spring that the Orioles optioned Johnson to Rochester. The move's abruptness devastated Johnson since he has been accorded No. 3 status after the loss of Scott Erickson to arthroscopic elbow surgery. However, Johnson helped himself little with a 6.98 ERA and 52 base runners allowed, including 18 walks, in 22 innings.
Hargrove said at the time: "He's gone out there six times and he's 0-for-6."
More confident and focused, Johnson is 6-for-6 this spring. He has allowed runs in only three appearances and walked only three hitters in 22 innings.
The Orioles even see positives in his stumbles. Johnson allowed three runs in the second inning of a March 12 start against the Florida Marlins, then righted himself for two more shutout innings. Last season's pitcher would have groped for excuses after melting down.
"One of the big keys for me this year was to come in and throw strikes," said Johnson, who walked 61 in 107 2/3 innings last season. "I want to get ahead of hitters and not walk anybody. I've got three walks in 22 innings. I've proven to myself my control's back and I'm ready to pitch."
The Orioles held their tongue regarding Johnson's progress until yesterday. The organization insists it won't make anything official until several days before Opening Day, lest it return Johnson's sense of entitlement. Given the right-hander's straight-ahead approach, there appears little risk of that.
"I cleared my head once the season was over and I've come out here relaxed," said Johnson, adding that his turnaround is "obviously mental."
Johnson falls into place behind Pat Hentgen, Sidney Ponson and Jose Mercedes, though the Orioles' reluctance to address even the most basic roster issues won't confirm the alignment. Any deviation from the current rotation this close to Opening Day would present a major breach.