Johnson's fortunes might be changing

O's pitcher debuts, tries to put hard luck in past

March 02, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When pitcher Jason Johnson walked to the mound before warming up yesterday, he didn't pass under a ladder and a black cat didn't scoot across his feet. There was only green grass between him and the pitching rubber. And the dark clouds that drifted across the sky were forecast before he arrived.

Maybe his luck is changing.

Elements conspire against the Orioles' right-hander that have nothing to do with the opposition. He doesn't have to worry about Mo Vaughn hurting him. Johnson can do that alone.

Making his first spring start yesterday, Johnson served up a bases-empty home run to Tony Clark leading off the second inning in the Orioles' 7-6 victory over the New York Mets. He allowed four hits and walked two batters while becoming the first Orioles starter to pitch into the third inning.

Johnson (1-0) stranded two runners in the first, and escaped with two long fly balls in the second that had Jay Gibbons in full retreat. Eric DuBose replaced him in the third after a leadoff single and a walk.

Because he threw two innings in the second intrasquad game, the Orioles tried to extend him a little further yesterday.

"The pitch count got up there a little too much," he said. "It was rough. I think it was just because it was my first [exhibition] game. I don't expect to go out and have 100 percent of my stuff. My control was a little bit off, but as the spring goes on, my control will get back to where I want it to be and I'll be ready for the season.

"I was strong today, but I was trying to throw too hard instead of being my normal self. I'll go out there my next start and try to calm down."

The bidding for the last spot in the Orioles' rotation will be fierce even without Scott Erickson, who is scheduled to have surgery later this week to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Johnson could be the fifth starter. He could be packaged in a trade. Or he could be injured.

It's anyone's guess.

For his first improvisation, Johnson will pretend that last season never happened. He went 5-14 with a 4.59 ERA, the third consecutive season that his losses swelled to double digits. Johnson also made two trips to the disabled list and missed his last start of the season while active.

"I don't think about the record at all," he said. "I felt like I pitched pretty well here and there. Some guys have 4.6 and 4.7 ERAs and they have 13 wins. Sometimes luck goes your way. I'm not worried about the record. I'm just worried about going out there and staying healthy."

No matter how Johnson's career unfolds, the Orioles still came out ahead in their trade with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In March 1999, former general manager Frank Wren acquired him for minor-league outfielder Danny Clyburn, who was last seen playing in an independent league. Johnson went 8-7 that season, but he has gone 16-36 over the past three years.

Johnson's .263 winning percentage last season was the third-lowest in the American League among pitchers with 15 or more decisions. He allowed only one run in seven starts but was 3-3 with a no-decision. The Orioles scored three runs or fewer in 15 of his 22 appearances, and he lost two 1-0 games.

Plenty of blame can be heaped on poor run support, but Johnson also had letdowns that undermined his chances of winning.

"Jason had a period last year where he had one big inning in five or six starts, and that cost him," manager Mike Hargrove said. "For a team that didn't score a lot of runs, your big inning needs to be one or two runs - three runs tops. It can't be four or five and expect to have success. And he went on the [disabled list] twice. That puts a crimp in your style."

Johnson's first work stoppage came April 25 after he fractured the middle finger on his right hand while shadow-throwing in the bullpen. Simulating his delivery without holding a ball, Johnson accidentally slammed his hand onto the ground.

"I'm not doing the shadow work anymore," he said. "That eliminates that broken finger."

The right shoulder tendinitis that developed in late July couldn't be attributed to bad luck, but what about the fractured finger that occurred while doing sit-ups in the outfield? A batting practice ball was headed toward him, and Johnson instinctively put up a hand to shield his face. It's a safe bet that he wasn't squatting on any four-leaf clovers.

"We were talking about putting mittens on him," Hargrove said. "Sometimes those things happen and you never know why or when. When it happens once, it's a fluke. If it happens twice, it's amazing. It's just unusual."

Getting through the next four weeks without a mishap would be a huge gain for Johnson, who's more concerned about his health than the early odds of becoming the fifth starter. He'll be satisfied if the only thing he cracks is the rotation.

"I'm going to go out there and do my job," he said. "I want one of the spots, but I'm not going to sit there and look at the paper. I haven't read it all spring. I'm just going to worry about myself in spring training, and at the end we'll find out what happens."

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