Baysox's Johnson: upstaged but upbeat

Minor leagues

April 17, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

J.J. Johnson has a knack for being overshadowed.

The Orioles prospect started Double-A Bowie's season opener, going five innings, striking out six and walking one.

The next night, his more celebrated teammate, Adam Loewen, gave up one hit in an eight-inning outing that had experienced prospect watchers reaching for comparisons to the greatest performances they'd seen.

Johnson backed up his first win with another Tuesday, striking out three and walking one in 6 1/3 innings.

But in Frederick the next night, Single-A starter Radhames Liz pitched five no-hit innings and struck out 13 with his high-90s fastball.

Such happenings are nothing new for Johnson. Last year, he earned the Jim Palmer Prize as the organization's best pitcher but ranked behind four other pitchers in Baseball America's offseason ranking of Orioles prospects.

None of that's to say the Orioles fail to appreciate the 22-year-old right-hander.

"When he gets in groove, he's very tough to hit because he can throw any pitch at any time," said Bowie pitching coach and former Orioles starter Scott McGregor.

McGregor was impressed that Johnson threw changeups on 3-1 and 3-2 counts Tuesday night. Such guile stands out in Double-A.

At 6 feet 5 with broad shoulders, Johnson looks like a power pitcher. But he doesn't overwhelm hitters with a 95-mph fastball, Roger Clemens style.

McGregor compared him to another modern master.

"He'll be a [Greg] Maddux-type pitcher, a smart guy who throws 89, 92, 91 with good location, good movement, a good changeup, a nice breaking ball," the pitching coach said. "He's a pitcher. He knows how to pitch."

Bowie first baseman Leo Daigle has played for nine teams in nine minor league seasons and said he has been impressed with Johnson and Loewen.

"I don't see them not winning 15 or 20 games in the big leagues," Daigle said of the pair.

Of Johnson, he said: "When he's got good command of his fastball, he's working in and out of the zone. And he's got the breaking ball. It's killer, too."

The Orioles picked Johnson in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Endicott High School in New York. The organization babied him at first, allowing him only 125 2/3 innings over his first three seasons.

Johnson, who went to 3-0 this season with a victory yesterday, pitched decently in those limited opportunities but began to emerge when given a fuller opportunity at Single-A Delmarva in 2004.

He broke out as a top prospect in Frederick last season, where he led the Carolina League in strikeouts, finished tied for second in wins and third in ERA. He was named the league's Pitcher of the Year over Loewen and other more touted prospects. The Orioles added him to the 40-man roster in November.

He impressed minor league director David Stockstill with his hard sinker and breaking stuff. Stockstill said Johnson just needs to "stay consistent."

McGregor agreed, saying his young starter has already demonstrated a precocious understanding of his craft.

"Just keep doing it," McGregor said. "That's all you can do." childs.walker@baltsun.com

On deck

Frederick fans will be able to catch a preview of future interleague showdowns when the Keys host the Potomac (Va.) Nationals, the Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, for three games this weekend. First baseman Steve Mortimer and pitcher Clint Everts are among the top players for Potomac.

3 up, 3 down

Up

Radhames Liz -- Scouts say the Dominican right-hander might have the best fastball in the organization and he showed it for Single-A Frederick on Wednesday, allowing no hits and striking out 13 in five innings.

Nolan Reimold -- The Orioles' best power prospect opened strong for Frederick, batting .409 with two homers and three steals in his first six games.

Brandon Snyder -- Last year's first-round pick batted .367 with a homer and six RBIs in his first seven games for Single-A Delmarva.

Down

Adam Loewen -- The team's top pitching prospect followed a superior first outing with a spottier effort Wednesday: eight hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings against Akron.

Fernando Quijada -- The Orioles have high hopes for this hard-throwing reliever but he allowed two earned runs, three hits and three walks in his first 3 1/3 innings for Delmarva.

Val Majewski -- He may be the best hitting prospect at Triple-A Ottawa, but Majewski started the season 1-for-17.

[Childs Walker]

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