'Just give me the ball,' O's Johnson says

Pitcher says he has no problem losing closer spot

February 22, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec | jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla — . - He is not a starter, as he was his entire minor league career, and he is no longer the Orioles' closer, a role he occupied at the end of last season to disappointing results.

Jim Johnson prefers just being called a pitcher, and that the questions about his ideal role with the club, now and in the future, would just go away.

"I'll be pitching between the second and the eighth innings and sometimes in extras," Johnson said. "Just give me the ball whenever."

Though Johnson insists he wasn't bothered by the team's offseason signing of Mike Gonzalez, which cost the 26-year-old the closer job, Orioles manager Dave Trembley felt the need to meet with the reliever last week to explain the team's decision.

Trembley told Johnson he felt the pitcher tried to do too much last year while closing games after the Orioles traded their former All-Star closer, George Sherrill, to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 30. In Sherrill's place, Johnson converted eight of 11 save opportunities and gave up runs in eight of his final 15 outings. Overall, Johnson, who pitched to a 2.23 ERA in 2008 while emerging as perhaps the team's top pitcher, had a 10.61 ERA over the final month of the season.

"I said, 'Hey, I saw you in the closer's role last year and … you weren't really Jim Johnson. You tried to be something other than what you were, and it didn't work for you.' He admitted that and said, 'You're correct,' " Trembley said. "I think it's just a young guy trying to do more than what he's capable of doing. I said, 'What's best for you and what's best for the team is to put you in the eighth inning.' That's where he belongs."

Johnson, in typical stoic fashion, told Trembley he was fine with his role. The pitcher clearly didn't agonize too much over the Orioles' decision as he didn't even know that the club had agreed to terms on a two-year, $12 million deal with Gonzalez until a reporter called a couple of days later.

"It's common sense," Johnson said. "They get a guy with experience, and I didn't give them a whole lot of reason to give the job to me. Mike's going to do fine. It doesn't matter as long as I can help us win games. I could care less, to be honest. I'm not at all disappointed. The focus is to help the team win as much as I can."

The best way for Johnson to do that is to return to the form that he showed in 2008, when he was one of the American League's top setup men. Johnson, who made 120 of his 131 minor league appearances as a starter, was summoned to the big leagues early that April and never left. Relying on a sinker in the mid-90s and a sharp curveball, Johnson didn't give up a run in 43 of his 54 outings in 2008.

While he was pretty effective for much of last season, Johnson endured some difficult stretches and finished with a 4.11 ERA. A season after surrendering no home runs in 68 2/3 innings, Johnson gave up eight in 70 innings.

"Let's face it, the year before he was just phenomenal," Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "Anytime you have a guy that was that dominant and had that kind of year, the expectations get so high. But he did a fine job. That was really his first full year of being a reliever. Now, I think he's feeling good in that role, and I see no reason now why he can't just take off."

Kranitz said Johnson's breaking ball wasn't as sharp last year as it was in 2008, and that got him into too many hitters' counts. Johnson acknowledged that he was probably trying to overthrow, specifically in September.

"Trust me, I gave it everything I had. It just seemed like some things kind of eluded me," Johnson said. "I may have tried too much, I might have overdone it and tried to be too perfect. But you gain a lot from experience, from getting your brains beaten in sometimes. That's how you get better. I'll be fine this year. I think I'll be back on track."

Johnson said he was mostly pleased with his season until September. But by the time he returned to his year-round home in Sarasota, he had quickly forgotten about his struggles. Johnson's wife, Liz, had their first child in August, a girl named Abigail, and that demanded his full attention.

"She doesn't care that I gave up runs or blew this many games," Johnson said. "Once I got home, it was all about her, spending time with the family and mixing in a little golf."

Ultimately, Johnson's focus got back to baseball and returning to his eighth-inning role. When the offseason began, there was some talk about Johnson's going back to being a starter, but the pitcher, Trembley and Kranitz said that page has been turned.

"Look at the young talent that we got in here," Johnson said. "There's no chance I'm going to be a starter with this team. I'll tell you that right now. I can probably start in Mexico in about 10 years. That's about it."

Kranitz said he still sees Johnson as a potential closer, but he's glad that the right-hander is back in the role in which he has had the most success.

"I think you can still look to him as the closer of this ballclub down the road," he said. "There are a lot of guys who have stubbed their toe in that situation. That's not an easy situation. But I think he's pretty much found his niche."

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