J. Johnson To Get Chance To Close



Former Minor League Starter Has Three Big League Saves

July 31, 2009|By Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec | Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

George Sherrill has been involved in so many trade rumors for the past two seasons that it became a joke in the Orioles' bullpen. But with Thursday's trade of Sherrill to the Los Angeles Dodgers for third base prospect Josh Bell and pitching prospect Steve Johnson, the reality is that the Orioles are without an established closer.

Jim Johnson, the former minor league starter who has three career big league saves on his resume, is expected to get the first opportunity to fill that role.

"I think that's likely, but in the end, that's up to [manager Dave Trembley]," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said.

Danys Baez and Chris Ray, who is on a rehabilitation assignment, have closer experience, but most team officials believe Johnson is a better current fit for that role. Sherrill, who saved 51 games in two seasons for the Orioles, said after the trade that he thinks Johnson can make the transition from an eighth-inning guy to a closer.

"Sometimes, the ninth is just three more outs," Sherrill said. "That's how I looked at it. And I think, if you look at last year, he had a lot of tougher situations to come into than I did. And he stepped up to the challenge every time. He's not a mental midget. He can step in there and knock them down in the ninth inning like he did in the eighth."

Johnson is coming off one of his best outings of the season as he threw a season-high two innings in the Orioles' victory over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday, and allowed just one hit while striking out a season-high four batters to pick up his second save. Before Wednesday, Johnson had allowed a run in six of his previous nine appearances after not yielding one in 14 of his previous 15 outings.

Johnson said he and pitching coach Rick Kranitz studied video of previous appearances and noticed that his hand position "was out of whack."

"We put in an old tape and a new tape. And we saw the differences; we saw what we needed to change," Johnson said. "You've got to give Kranny credit for it. He knows what he is looking at."

On Wednesday, Johnson's sinker was exhibiting the late movement that has made him so effective in the past two seasons.

"Better than it has been in a while," Johnson said. "Where it was going bad was when the sinker stayed straight. ... That's what was happening. You change hand position, getting on top of the ball and driving it through."

Asked Thursday before the Sherrill deal was completed about potentially closing, Johnson said: "He is here right now. So we're very simple. We don't look too far ahead. We look at it one day at a time."

If a save situation arises tonight, Johnson will likely have to confront the reality of his new role.

Scott's struggles

Designated hitter Luke Scott is in a slump dating to his fourth-inning home run against the Toronto Blue Jays' Ricky Romero on July 11. From that point, he was 2-for-38 with 13 strikeouts before singling in the eighth inning Thursday.

"As we all know, when he gets hot, he can hit anybody," Trembley said of Scott. "This is the first time this year he's gone through one of these little spells where he's hit the wall. Maybe that [single] will get him started. Maybe this will get him started. We certainly need him now going against Boston, Detroit and the really good pitchers that we're going to face."

Around the horn

The Orioles are expected to open the 2010 season on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla. ... Brian Roberts' sixth-inning double Thursday was the 400th extra-base hit of his career. He is 10th on the Orioles' all-time list. ... On Wednesday, Chris Tillman became the first Oriole to allow three home runs in his big league debut since John Stephens did it July 30, 2002, at Tampa Bay. ... The Orioles are 5-0 in debuts by rookie starters this year. Gregg Zaun has caught all five. ... Former Orioles pitcher John Habyan threw out the ceremonial first pitch Thursday, and his daughter, Holly, sang the national anthem. ... Trembley said there is no timetable for relievers Dennis Sarfate and Ray to return from injury rehab assignments. Both are expected to pitch tonight in the minors; Sarfate at Triple-A Norfolk and Ray at Double-A Bowie.

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