Johnson stock splits in O's favor

Healthy in mind, body, starter adds pitch, too

April 09, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Jason Johnson had moments on the mound two years ago when he wondered if he was safe even being there with diabetes. He wondered about his future with the Orioles. He wondered if he'd ever win again.

Any thoughts of balls and strikes competed with those worries, so it's little surprise he finished that miserable season 1-10.

Then, Johnson took control. With the help of his wife, Stacey, he found an insulin pump that regulated his blood sugar, he found strength through his religion and, eventually, he found the strike zone.

After feeling like a self-described "wreck" in 2000, Johnson basically found his comfort zone last year, which allowed him to add a new pitch to his arsenal, which might help make this his breakout season.

"I hope so," said Johnson, who faces the Tampa Bay Devil Rays tonight in his second start. "I'm looking forward to it. I just signed a two-year deal this off-season, and I want to live up to it."

Johnson, 28, hasn't won a game since Aug. 6, a span of eight months, but he had a solid first outing against the New York Yankees on Wednesday. In 7 2/3 innings, Johnson allowed one run - Robin Ventura's homer - and just six hits, but the Yankees won behind David Wells, 1-0.

It wasn't just Johnson's pitching line that made the Orioles excited; it was the way he did it. Besides locating his 93-mph fastball low in the strike zone most of the night, Johnson effectively used his new pitch, a split-fingered fastball, about seven or eight times.

The pitch, known as the splitter in baseball vernacular, is thrown with the forefinger and middle finger split on either side of the baseball. When thrown effectively - see former Orioles Curt Schilling and Kevin Brown - the splitter will often fool hitters because of its slower speed and late-dropping motion toward their feet.

For Johnson, the simple fact he is close to mastering the pitch speaks volumes about his mental turnaround. It's a pitch he probably wasn't ready to learn two years ago with all of the distractions in his life.

"I wasn't where I wanted to be," Johnson said. "Spiritually, I grew a lot. My faith in God became really strong, and that helped me a lot on the mound. Now, if I give up a home run, it's not the end of the world.

"There were a lot of things. I got the insulin pump to help my diabetes, and that took some of the burden off me and my wife. She worried about me all the time."

With those worries put to rest, Johnson emerged as a top young pitcher last season. He was 10-6 with a 3.18 ERA on Aug. 6, and then slumped like the rest of the team, going 0-6 down the stretch.

But while Johnson was losing, he was making an adjustment that could make him better in the long run. Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley waited until Johnson felt comfortable with his fastball, curveball and changeup before suggesting he add the splitter.

Johnson experimented with it last season and made it a regular part of his repertoire this spring.

"He's getting a better feel for it, better confidence in it," Wiley said. "I think his breaking pitch has gotten better, his changeup was good last year and is good again, and so is his fastball. This just gives him one more thing, and I think it complements them well."

Against the Yankees, Johnson finished with six strikeouts, and two of those came against New York's prized off-season acquisition Jason Giambi. Afterward, Yankees manager Joe Torre said Johnson has improved every time he's seen him.

"Everybody in the league knows that he's a really good pitcher now," Wiley said. "I've talked to other teams, talked to other players on other clubs, and they all know it.

"The first big jump you ever take in the big leagues is making yourself feel like you belong. The second step is gaining the respect of your opponents, and I think he's gone through the second big step."

In January, the Orioles rewarded that progression by signing Johnson to a two-year, $4.7 million contract. For Johnson, who came to the Orioles in a March 1999 trade with Tampa Bay for outfielder Danny Clyburn, it was another big load off his mind.

"It's huge," Johnson said. "When you have a two-year deal, you know that they have faith that you can pitch, so it helps you relax out there on the mound."

NOTE: Commissioner Bud Selig officially named Orioles owner Peter Angelos to Major League Baseball's negotiating team yesterday. The group is working on a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union. In a prepared statement, Angelos, a lawyer with vast experience representing labor unions, said: "I welcome the opportunity to serve the game at this pivotal juncture. I am hopeful that my experience as an attorney and as a club owner will help contribute to a successful outcome at the bargaining table."

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Camden Yards

Time:7:05

TV/Radio:Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters:Devil Rays' Paul Wilson (0-0, 1.13) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-1, 1.17)

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