Johnson, O's rise in obscurity

Orioles pitcher ends his 15-start drought, handles Rays, 6-2

Myers' 3 RBIs pace attack

No TV

crowd smallest for scheduled game

April 17, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Never in Camden Yards history have so few seen so much.

Behind made-over Jason Johnson, the Orioles took apart the self-destructive Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 6-2, last night before 24,558 in a place used to holding many more. For the first time in a young season, the Orioles didn't have to rely on brilliant escapes or a late-inning swing. They bumped their record to 6-7 by enjoying the latest positive step in a young pitcher's recovery and another offensive breakout by a little-used backup catcher.

Greg Myers actually surfaced as last night's designated hitter and fled the scene afterward with his second home run in as many days and three RBIs, giving him eight for the series.

The Orioles spent spring training trying to find a taker for Myers but couldn't find a satisfactory deal. Now he allows manager Mike Hargrove to ride a hot offensive hand for the first time this season.

Hargrove called it "the first time all year we took some breaks and we made some good things happen."

Question: If a trend falls in a half-filled ballpark, does it really count?

Last night's attendance was the smallest in 671 regularly scheduled games in Camden Yards' 10-year history and only the fourth crowd below 30,000. The other three were make-up games. Given that last night's win also wasn't televised, it was likely seen by fewer folks than any Orioles game in Camden Yards history.

What the orange-and-black fan base missed were things unseen for weeks, years or, in Myers' case, a career.

By allowing one run in six innings, Johnson won for the first time in 16 starts stretching to 1999. Myers completed the most productive series of his 12-year major-league career. Left fielder Delino DeShields provided the game-winning hit within his first multi-hit game of the season.

Not only did the win end Johnson's personal frustration; it also ended the rotation's year-long quest for a win. Through 12 games, Orioles starters were the only group in either league without a win. The win allowed the Orioles to split the four-game series against a perennial bottom-feeder. It was also the first of the season not decided by either one run or in extra innings.

"This year he's been more aggressive with his pitches. He's not picking and trying to make the perfect pitch every time. I think he's trusting his stuff, and he's got dynamite stuff," assessed Hargrove, citing Johnson's greater belief in both his ability and new pitching coach Mark Wiley.

"The big question coming into the season was what kind of spring Jason would have. And the second question was whether he could continue that. And he's done that so far," Hargrove said.

Johnson was 0-8 with a 7.32 ERA at Camden Yards during last season's 1-10 nightmare. However, this month's previous home outing was a no-decision in which he surrendered one run to Boston in 8 1/3 innings. Johnson's last appearance against the Devil Rays - his former team - came Aug. 4, a four-inning relief outing that became his only win of the season.

From his newly blond hair, modest goatee and subtly altered delivery, Johnson does not resemble last season's traumatized pitcher. He fumbled a 4-0 lead in last Wednesday's start in Boston by not lasting the minimum five innings for a decision. Unfazed, he came back for more last night.

"I came in 8-7 in 1999 and I felt like I needed to win 10 games [last season] and I put a lot more pressure on myself," said Johnson.

Hargrove described his feeling about Johnson as "guarded optimism," adding, "I think we're slowly approaching the point where we feel good whenever Jason takes the mound. ... I like it when Jason pitches. I couldn't say that at this time last year, but I certainly can this year."

Last night's work was straightforward and efficient, qualities too often lacking in Johnson's 2000 season.

Johnson helped himself by retiring the first hitter in five of six innings. The only exception came in the fourth when the Devil Rays ran themselves out of the threat.

The Devil Rays forced a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning with an odd two-out rally. Catcher John Flaherty doubled, then No. 9 hitter Felix Martinez, the game's worst hitter to receive at least 300 plate appearances last season, rallied from an 0-2 count to ground Johnson's fourth pitch for an RBI single.

The Orioles answered immediately against starter Ryan Rupe (0-2), retaking the lead with DeShields' two-out hit.

Jerry Hairston began the inning with a single and stole second base on Mike Bordick's strikeout for the second out. DeShields entered the game in a 1-for-23 funk so profound Hargrove had benched him in Boston and pinch hit for him in Sunday's loss. Returned to the No. 3 spot in the order, he produced his second consecutive hit on a broken-bat flare to left, scoring Hairston.

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