O's, Johnson do a number on Rays, 9-7

8-run second inning lifts pitcher to 2-0 after case of meager support last year

Victory is Orioles' third in row

Pitcher loses focus, goes 6

Batista has HR, 2-run hit

April 19, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

When Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson went out for the third inning last night, he looked up and saw a number glistening on the scoreboard.

Call it an eight-spot, or a snowman; the Orioles had just scored eight second-inning runs, and it must have taken all Johnson had not to trip over the foul line in disbelief.

A year ago, eight runs was a month's worth of support for Johnson. Suddenly, the Orioles had given Johnson a cushion like that for the second time in a week, and this time it resulted in a 9-7 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

On a cold night at Camden Yards, where the paid attendance was 19,545 but the number inside the ballpark was considerably smaller, the toughest challenge for Johnson was keeping his focus.

This proved to be a bigger problem for Johnson than the Orioles had hoped, but he still turned in another quality start.

"I hate to say it, but I was terrible after the eight-run inning," Johnson said. "I lost my focus, and I tried to regain it the rest of the game, but I don't think I ever did."

On this night, that didn't cost Johnson a victory. Tony Batista had a two-run single and later added his fourth home run of the year, and the Orioles withstood a late Tampa Bay rally to win their third game in a row.

It's their first three-game winning streak since they won four straight from Aug. 20 to Aug. 23 last season, a stretch they followed with their historic 4-32 collapse.

Today, the Orioles (7-8) will send Opening Day starter Rodrigo Lopez to the mound, trying to even their record at .500. Three times through the rotation, their best starter has been Johnson, who was pushed back to No. 5 late in the spring.

After going 5-14 last year and 16-36 over the previous three years, Johnson is 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA. He went six innings last night, holding the Devil Rays to four runs (three earned) on eight hits.

As pleased as this makes Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, he still hoped Johnson took a lesson out of this game.

"You can't stop pitching," Hargrove said. "You've still got to pitch to get people out. These are still major league hitters. His first couple innings, he mixed his curveball and changeup in well. Then he went back out for the third and just threw fastball after fastball and got in trouble."

Devil Rays shortstop Rey Ordonez hit a two-run homer in the third inning, giving him three homers for the season, which matches his career high.

Johnson gave up another run in the fourth, and Tampa Bay had two hits in each of his last four innings.

"When you lose [focus], it's tough to get it back," Hargrove said.

"Fortunately he did get it back, but he never was the same as he was the first two innings."

Forgive Johnson for being out of sorts. Last year, he didn't record his second victory until June 23. The Orioles scored three runs or fewer in 15 of his 22 starts. He took the loss in two games that ended 1-0. He allowed one run seven times, and was 3-3 with a no-decision in those games.

Run support? Try run deficiency.

The pattern continued for Johnson in his first start this season. He dueled Pedro Martinez for 6 1/3 innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead, only to come away with a no-decision.

Last Saturday, Johnson drew Martinez again, but the Orioles scored three in the first and seven in the fifth, cruising to a 13-6 victory. It was the first time in Martinez's career he had given up 10 runs in a game.

Last night, the Orioles sent 13 batters to the plate in the second inning and scored five of their eight runs with two outs. Devil Rays starter Victor Zambrano (0-2) threw 54 pitches in inning, and Johnson said he contemplated throwing in the batting tunnel to try to keep loose.

The inning included two bases-loaded walks, one by Marty Cordova and another by Jeff Conine. Batista, whose two-run single made it 8-0, homered off Jesus Colome with two outs in the seventh, and by the end, the Orioles needed all the cushion they could get.

"When you score early, you really need to add on," Hargrove said. "And we couldn't get anything going."

Last week, they blew five leads in losing two of three games at Tampa Bay, and they almost let this one slide, too.

Rick Bauer, who relieved Johnson to start the seventh, pitched two scoreless innings and then walked the first two batters to start the ninth. Toby Hall hit a three-run homer, trimming the Orioles' lead to two, and Jorge Julio had to come on to record the final three outs for his fourth save.

Orioles today

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Camden Yards

Time:1:35 p.m.

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

Starters:Devil Rays' Jorge Sosa (0-1, 5.40) vs. Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (0-2, 6.35)

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