Johnson helps ex-O's mates end skid, 7-5

Tigers starter gives up 6 runs

Orioles hold on, halt 7-game losing streak

Pitcher left O's on bad terms

Groom's relief, homers by Matos, Tejada are key

May 29, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - For former Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson, last night had all the ingredients for sweet revenge.

His old club came to town riding a seven-game losing streak, and he was on the mound for the Detroit Tigers with a chance to make it eight.

After kicking Johnson to the curb last winter, the Orioles were in a serious bind, and everyone knew pitching was the root of their problem. This was Johnson's chance to show them what they were missing.

Well, it sounded good anyway.

Johnson wound up with that contorted look the Orioles had seen many times before, only this time, it meant they were on their way to ending their horrendous streak with a 7-5 victory at Comerica Park.

"You just saw the worst game I pitched all year," Johnson said.

The Orioles pounded Johnson for six runs in 4 2/3 innings, and held on for dear life after their own starter, Eric DuBose, sputtered again.

Even in victory, nothing came easy.

Luis Matos and Miguel Tejada hit home runs as the Orioles built a 7-2 lead. But the Tigers loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth, prompting Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli to pull DuBose (4-3) and turn to his struggling bullpen.

That was a perplexing move for the Orioles, considering their relief corps had posted a 14.54 ERA during the skid. This time, they were up to the challenge.

Buddy Groom allowed just one of the three runners he inherited from DuBose to score and got the Orioles to the eighth inning with a 7-4 lead. B.J. Ryan recorded three relatively painless outs, and Jorge Julio survived a hair-pulling ninth for his eighth save.

"He could be a little rusty," Mazzilli said of Julio, who converted his first save opportunity since May 19. "He made it interesting."

Call that an understatement.

The Tigers scored one in the ninth, and with two outs, Julio walked two batters to load the bases for Carlos Pena, who had had six hits in Detroit's 17-7 win at Kansas City one day earlier.

Of course, in baseball, things change a lot from day to day. The Orioles were grateful for that coming off an 18-5 loss to the New York Yankees.

Pena struck out in his first three at-bats against DuBose and Co., but he staged an epic, 10-pitch battle with Julio. After staying alive by fouling off four pitches with two strikes - some of them registering 98 mph on the radar gun - Pena hit a sharp grounder, but right at first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who ran to first to end the game.

Later, in an Orioles clubhouse filled with relief, Ryan summed up everyone's thoughts when he said, "That's kind of the way baseball is. ... It's the kind of job where you go from a hero to a goat in a heartbeat, and from a goat to a hero in another heartbeat."

Johnson (3-6) had an up-and-down five seasons with the Orioles. He went 34-53 over that span, and they cut him loose because they figured he could almost double his $2.9 million salary through arbitration.

Ten days later, Johnson signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Tigers. At the time, he almost looked like a pity case. But Detroit is no longer Baseball Siberia. Entering this game, the Tigers (now 22-25) actually had a better record than the revamped Orioles (21-23).

Last month, in an interview with The Sun, Johnson expressed his displeasure for his former team. He said the Orioles "lacked professionalism," and added, "I didn't think I was appreciated there that much."

Johnson seemed primed for a statement game. After suffering through five consecutive losses, he had gone 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in his previous two starts.

But the Orioles grabbed the lead in the third inning, when Melvin Mora singled, stole second base and scored on a sacrifice fly by Rafael Palmeiro. Mora, who also singled and scored in the sixth inning, went 2-for-5, leaving his major league-leading average at .391.

Tejada made it 4-2 in the fifth with his seventh homer of the season, a bases-empty shot to left, and with two outs, Johnson came unglued. Larry Bigbie hit a run-scoring triple - only the second three-bagger on the season for the Orioles - and B.J. Surhoff dropped a run-scoring single into right field for a 6-2 lead.

The six earned runs charged to Johnson raised his ERA to 6.05.

"His last two starts were certainly much better," Tigers manager Alan Trammell said. "He was not as sharp as he's been."

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