Johnson already is a head above '02

Orioles: The calmer pitcher credits his mind-set for his rise from 5-14 to 3-0. And his father's premonition didn't hurt.

April 29, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

It took Orioles starter Jason Johnson just one pitch to know he was in trouble, that he must go into survival mode if he had any chance of avoiding the avalanche of runs and embarrassment that seemed on the verge of burying him.

And he hadn't even left the bullpen.

Johnson remembers that he had nothing as he warmed up before Wednesday's game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards. He couldn't locate the fastball, couldn't snap off his curveball, couldn't generate anything positive.

In past years, Johnson would have made a hasty exit, the Orioles would have lost and he would have stood at his locker afterward, seething inches beneath the surface, his eyes locked in an icy stare. A serial killer would get the willies.

But this isn't the same Jason Johnson, at least not through four games. Reaching into an expanded bag of pitches, Johnson pulled out his sinker, which induced enough ground balls to get him out of a few jams. He allowed only one run over six innings, and the Orioles defeated the White Sox, 7-1.

His next start comes tonight against the hapless Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. The blister that forced Johnson from his last start has healed, and he's attempting to go 4-0 while leading the Orioles to reconsider their designation of 0-3 Rodrigo Lopez as staff ace.

It almost looks like a misprint, but it's more of a premonition.

"My dad's been telling me the whole offseason that he had a great feeling about this year and he never felt this way before," Johnson said. "He told me before spring training started. He said, `I have a feeling you're going to get a lot of run support this season,' and I was like, `What are you, psychic?' "

He probably was as frustrated as Johnson, who received three runs or fewer in 15 of his 22 starts last year. Johnson lost two 1-0 games. He lost just about every way possible, which makes it easier to go 5-14.

The Orioles are averaging 7.6 runs in Johnson's four starts, but that would be too simple an explanation. He was 16-36 the previous three seasons. Better offensive support doesn't fully explain the early reversal or his ability to win despite not having his good stuff.

He has out-dueled Pedro Martinez twice, but one of those games ended 2-1. He also has beaten the White Sox's Bartolo Colon. Twice, he has permitted only one hit, even when unable to trust anything besides his sinker, and he has gone at least six innings in every start while crafting a 2.55 ERA.

How much of this is coming from his right arm and how much from above his shoulders?

"It's all going on up here," Johnson said, pointing to his head. "The curveball might be a little better now than it was a few years ago, but it's not drastically better. It's just the mind-set that I've got."

Before each season, Johnson receives a blessing at his Florida home from a member of his church. It was suggested that he stay confident, "both when you're out there on the mound and in life," he said. "I felt like that was something I needed to think about more often, and I'm doing that more this year."

He could use some divine intervention after fracturing his right middle and index fingers in two bizarre accidents last season and also coming down with shoulder tendinitis. Johnson slammed his right hand onto the ground while simulating his delivery, and missed his final start after using the same hand to shield his face from a batting practice fly ball.

Pitching coach Mark Wiley said the interruptions prevented Johnson, 29, from enjoying the same success a year earlier. He already had developed a hard curveball to go with a slower one, his plus-fastball and his changeup. That extra pitch might have allowed Johnson to stop losing with such alarming regularity and become more than just a tease to an organization waiting for him to take off.

"Now you get to see the advantage of learning a better breaking pitch last year and being able to reinforce it this year by being healthy," Wiley said. "He throws plenty hard enough and he creates good angles when he's throwing well, but in the past it was tough to have a real, true finish pitch, something that hitters had to worry about. Last year we saw that starting, but we didn't get a chance to stay with it."

Wiley may subscribe to the theory that Johnson is finally winning because of an expanded repertoire, but Johnson seems convinced he used his head to hold down the White Sox.

"That showed I can keep my confidence," he said. "In past years, I would have thought about it a little bit too much and put too much pressure on myself. The way I am now and the way I've matured as a pitcher, I realize you're not always going to have your good stuff, but you have to battle."

Especially when the opponent is yourself. Johnson can be his own worst enemy, becoming rattled when an umpire squeezes him or a long inning keeps him in the dugout. But his concentration never has been sharper, his recovery time never shorter.

"I've seen Jason be able to better control his emotions," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I don't mean he's a more passive guy, but taking whatever his motivation is and keeping focused and not letting it expand to the point where he just loses all thought."

So perhaps it's a combination of mental toughness, confidence, a father's prediction, a blessing and a hard curve that has Johnson two wins away from matching last season's total.

Or maybe it's his travel agent.

Johnson and his wife, Stacey, vacationed in Hawaii during the winter, just as they did before he won 10 games in 2001.

"I didn't do it last year, so I did it this year," he said. "Maybe it's Hawaii."

Jason Johnson after four starts

2002

1-3 5.48

W-L ERA

2003

3-0 2.55

w-l ERA

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