Johnson dumps slump, Rays, 6-3

Pitcher gets first victory since Aug. 6

Gibbons hits AL-best seventh homer

April 21, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Is the dead arm a dead issue? For Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson, the greater importance came in stopping the pulse of a winless streak that dated back to last summer.

Feeling better than in his two previous starts, Johnson gave the Orioles seven credible innings last night while waiting for them to rally past the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 6-3, before 11,402 at Tropicana Field. They are assured of winning their first series of the season, no matter what happens today.

The lockers in the visiting clubhouse weren't covered in plastic, so no champagne was being sprayed in celebration of Johnson's first victory since Aug. 6 against Kansas City. He settled for a mundane post-game meal and the quiet satisfaction in ending a stretch of nine consecutive losing decisions -- the longest in the majors.

"I had pitched well enough to get some wins, and they just didn't come. I faced some guys who pitched a little bit better than I did," Johnson said. "It didn't really bother me at all. I just ruined all your guys [reporters] stories from now on. You can't say, `He's lost 17 straight.' "

A two-out double by Jerry Hairston scored Marty Cordova in the sixth to break a 3-3 tie. Jay Gibbons belted his seventh homer to lead off the inning, giving him the American League lead and continuing a quirky pattern of destruction. Gibbons is 12-for-23 with six homers when chasing the first pitch, 8-for-38 with one homer when showing some restraint.

Johnson had been restrained long enough. He was 0-3 with a 6.28 ERA coming into the game, and another abbreviated start would have raised more intense concerns within the organization about his health. Instead, he retired the last 11 batters he faced before Willis Roberts entered in the eighth inning. All six hits off him were confined to the first three innings, and he threw 119 pitches before departing.

"This was probably the best stuff he's had in the last three or four starts," said manager Mike Hargrove. "His velocity still isn't what it can be, but it seemed like the longer he went, the stronger he got."

The club's No. 2 starter, Johnson had described an aching sensation in his right shoulder, bringing a fatigue that normally arrives in spring training. Johnson, who retired only four batters on Monday, got through his side session without any complaints and felt good last night despite falling behind 3-1 in the third.

The Devil Rays went ahead on a run-scoring double by Randy Winn and a sacrifice fly by Greg Vaughn, but the Orioles scored once in the fifth and twice in the sixth to take the lead. In the process, they became the last team in the majors to get a triple -- Tampa Bay beat them by one night -- when Chris Singleton's liner reached the fence in right-center field to score Melvin Mora. Gibbons connected the next inning off Devil Rays starter Paul Wilson, and Hairston collected his third double of the series.

Two-out doubles by Tony Batista and Cordova in the ninth scored two more runs and gave Roberts a little breathing room. Roberts, in turn, gave the Orioles their second save of 2002.

Johnson picked an opportune time to straighten up. Factor in the early returns from Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers, and a significant chunk of the rotation was 0-7 with a 6.52 ERA before last night. The continued success of Rodrigo Lopez out of the bullpen makes it easier for Hargrove to contemplate changes. Lopez, signed out of the Mexican League, is 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.

"As starters struggle, it opens the option to put him in the rotation. That idea's floating out there, though we haven't really discussed it in any depth," Hargrove said.

The Orioles' bullpen was bruised after Hargrove needed five relievers to close out Friday night's 14-inning victory.

The club needed Johnson to ease some of the strain by pitching deep into the game, something he hadn't done in his past two starts. He couldn't make it out of the sixth in a 3-2 loss to the Devil Rays on April 10, and the Chicago White Sox scored six runs off him in 1 1/3 innings.

Last night, Johnson gave up three straight singles with one out in the first, but two of the balls got through the infield, more because of placement than velocity. Winn's chopper cleared the head of first baseman Jeff Conine, and Ben Grieve's grounder found the hole on the right side to score Jason Tyner with the tying run.

The Orioles gave Johnson a 1-0 lead in the first on a walk to Singleton and run-scoring double by Conine, who has hit safely in his last six games. The inning continued a revitalization of sorts by the offense, which had produced a .171 average with four homers and 16 runs in the first seven games. Over the past nine games, the Orioles have batted .259 with 12 homers and 49 runs.

Orioles today

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time:1:15 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (0-1, 7.88) vs. Devil Rays' Delvin James (0-1, 3.60)

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