Johnson gets back to basics in debut

Derailed last season, No. 3 starter follows a simple, effective plan

April 06, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Work fast, throw strikes. It's a formula that sounds so simple, except for the times last season when it seemed to baffle Jason Johnson.

That wasn't the case this spring, when he led the Orioles in wins, posted a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings and bullied his way into the rotation. And it wasn't the case last night in his first start of 2001, when he limited the Boston Red Sox to one run over 8 1/3 innings in the Orioles' 2-1 victory at Camden Yards.

The win was credited to reliever Buddy Groom, who got the last two outs in the ninth before a bases-loaded walk to Melvin Mora off Red Sox closer Derek Lowe brought the game to its conclusion. But Johnson, making his debut as the No. 3 starter, kept the Orioles afloat on another night when their offense was all wet.

Effectively mixing his pitches and keeping the game at a brisk pace, he allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out six. The only run came on a sixth-inning bouncer to first baseman David Segui, whose throw to the plate didn't arrive in time to cut down Jose Offerman on a close play.

Of Johnson's 110 pitches, 77 were strikes. He was removed in the ninth after Shea Hillenbrand's one-out single. The crowd rose for an ovation before Johnson had handed Hargrove the ball.

Work fast, throw strikes.

"That was the thing right there," he said. "Keep the defense on its toes by working quick. I wanted to cut down on the walks this year and throw as many strikes as I can, and that's what I did out there. Keep the pitch count down and get into the later innings."

Johnson followed the lead of starters Pat Hentgen and Sidney Ponson, who allowed a combined three earned runs in 16 innings over the first two games of the series. The Orioles were held to four runs in the three games, but won twice because the starters held firm and the bullpen didn't buckle.

Johnson "threw about 108 pitches, which is the range we wanted to keep him in," Hargrove said. "He battled all night long. With a break here or there, he could have gotten a win. But he did the job. If he pitches like that every time out, Jason's going to win a lot of games."

It would take only two for him to top last year's total. Johnson lost his spot in the rotation, and on the 25-man roster, during spring training and made two stops at Triple-A Rochester before finishing 1-10. Eight straight losses to begin the season tied a club record. They apparently didn't break his spirit.

Johnson has been a different pitcher since reporting for spring training. He has been the pitcher the club envisioned since trading for him two years ago. His stuff's always been good enough. The rest of his game, especially the mental part of it, seems to be falling into place.

"I like the fact that he maintained his concentration from the first pitch to the last," Hargrove said. "There were a couple of times when it got tight and Jason could have reverted, and he didn't. ... He had 88 pitches after the seventh inning. Last year, he had 88 pitches by the third inning almost every time out. He's trusting his stuff, he's trusting his ability."

Said catcher Brook Fordyce: . "Once he gets in a groove you can see him starting to relax. ... I imagine with that 1-10 record, he wanted to get 10 wins in the next outing."

Johnson's goal was to be the fifth starter. He moved past Chuck McElroy into the fourth slot, then was bumped up again when Jose Mercedes balked at being the third starter because of a superstition over the No. 3.

"You just have to bring what you had in spring training into the season," he said. "I went out there and didn't try too hard on the mound and it worked out."

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