Johnson redoubles effort to leave Single-A

32nd pick of 2000 draft shows improved power but still struggles to get on

Notebook

Minor League Baseball

May 24, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

In his fifth season after the Orioles used him as a compensation pick in the amateur baseball draft, third baseman Nelson "Tripper" Johnson can't break through the Single-A barrier, or get past the disappointment.

Johnson remained with the Frederick Keys this year, a promotion to the Double-A Bowie Baysox still his goal rather than a reality. This isn't where he expected to be after the Orioles made him the 32nd overall selection in 2000 out of Newport (Wash.) High - not this far into his professional career.

"He thinks he's got to be in the big leagues now because he was a high draft choice," Frederick manager Tom Lawless said.

Johnson is hitting .248. His average is down from .273 last year, but he has already hit seven home runs - two more than last year.

"It's going OK so far," he said. "The one thing I'm happy with is the power. Overall, I feel pretty good. The season's still young. There's a lot of time left."

Sometimes, the clock seems to be ticking a little too loudly for Johnson. It has become a distraction for a player who fears he's letting down an organization that invested so much in him.

Johnson dates back so far that the Orioles acquired him as compensation for losing relief pitcher Arthur Rhodes to the Seattle Mariners as a free agent. He totaled 11 homers and 71 RBIs with the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds in 2002, but didn't progress enough last year to join the Eastern League.

Lawless met with Johnson last week to ease the player's concerns over his standing in the organization, to boost his confidence and to provide assurances that a positive attitude and continued hard work will bring the desired gains.

"When I first signed, I was young and immature," Johnson said. "I didn't really expect to be in A ball five years down the road. But he told me you can't let it bother you, you can't worry about things you can't control. Just worry about doing your job and hopefully move up.

"I just turned 22. Time's on my side. I just didn't expect to be in A ball again, but it's something you've got to put up with."

Bowie is using shortstop Ed Rogers at third base because Jose Morban occupies his old position. Johnson would like the chance to bump Rogers somewhere else, perhaps by the second half of the season.

"I'd love a chance to play in Double-A this year and get some experience, but I can't control where they put me," Johnson said. "I've just got to do my job and play hard every day."

Jose Leon is having an outstanding year at Triple-A Ottawa, but he's no longer on the Orioles' 40-man roster. Melvin Mora remains their regular third baseman - a player who leads the American League in batting but won't win a Gold Glove. It's not like Scott Rolen or Eric Chavez is blocking Johnson.

"I watch the games, but I don't let it get in the back of my head. I don't focus on it too much," he said. "I've learned over the years that you've just got to worry about yourself and the rest will take care of itself."

Johnson just needs an occasional reminder.

"He's got a chance to gain experience and maturity, learning the game," Lawless said. "In two years, he could be in the big leagues at 24. Don't rush yourself. Don't put any undue pressure on yourself to think you have to be an all-world baseball player.

"We told him he's improved from last year and he's gotten better from the beginning of this year. That's all you want to do. You want to build on the good things and keep getting better."

Triple-A Ottawa

The Lynx entered the weekend ranked third in the International League with a .271 average, and last in pitching with a 5.76 ERA. ... Leon, riding an 11-game hitting streak, ranked sixth with a .339 average and led the league with a .716 slugging percentage. ... Ottawa was swept by Columbus in a doubleheader Saturday, losing, 5-4 and 6-1. John Maine (1-2) allowed five runs, including two homers and seven hits in 3 1/3 innings in the nightcap. Brian Forystek didn't get the decision in the first game after allowing four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. ... Leon hit his 10th homer Tuesday, and Jack Cust added his third, in a 9-3 loss to Toledo. ... Kurt Ainsworth's first start with Ottawa since getting sent down by the Orioles didn't go smoothly. He allowed four runs and seven hits in four innings in Thursday's 10-7 win over Toledo. Pedro Swann hit his eighth homer and drove in four runs. ... Left-hander Bruce Chen's major league experience has meant little in Triple-A. He lost Tuesday after allowing six runs and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings. The Mud Hens hit three homers off him.

Double-A Bowie

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