Jim Johnson, the 26-year-old right-hander considered a key building block in the Orioles' bullpen, was sent to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday after a difficult first month in which he posted a 6.52 ERA in 10 games and allowed five of eight inherited runners to score.
"It was a tough decision, but it's the best thing to do for Jim Johnson," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "We now have to have other guys step up in the role that he was in, and we have to make do with the best situation we can."
The Orioles were forced to make a corresponding roster move when they recalled Brad Bergesen from Norfolk to start Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox.
Johnson's demotion was somewhat surprising in that he has pitched more games out of the Orioles' bullpen in his career than any current reliever and was the club's de facto closer as recently as last week. But he had minor league options remaining, and he couldn't develop any consistency, allowing 15 hits, seven earned runs and four walks in 92/3 innings this season, while blowing three of four save chances.
The final decision wasn't made until after Friday's game, Trembley said, when five of the eight batters Johnson faced reached base.
"It was a big consideration; it was a big factor."
Meanwhile, Matt Albers, considered a candidate to be removed from the roster, pitched a perfect 10th inning for Friday's win. Albers, who is out of options and would have had to clear waivers before being sent down, has pitched 31/3 scoreless innings in his past three games.
Trembley wouldn't say whether Albers' recent performance saved his job.
"He's pitched good, and he's on the club," Trembley said.
The Orioles believe Johnson, who was primarily a starter until 2008, stopped relying on his formidable sinker in key situations and reverted to a starter's mentality, at times mixing in too many pitches.
"I thought he tried to adjust too much," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "You started to see too many different pitches in different counts, and it's really not Jim Johnson. He got away from his sinker. He got away from what he loves. Not that he shouldn't add to his pitches, but I think he got a little bit far away from [his strength]."
Johnson left the clubhouse Saturday before talking to the media and was unavailable for comment. Trembley said the two had a "nice, long conversation" and he believes Johnson saw the demotion coming and accepted it with the proper perspective.
"I don't believe he sensed any surprise at all. I told him I was up quite late last night, very early this morning, and he said he was right there with me. He's a pretty sharp guy." Trembley said. "I told him he should be proud of what he's done, he's very important to us, he's a big part of where we're going. He should walk out of here with his head held high. He said, ‘Dave, I've given you everything I've got.' I said, ‘I know that.' "
Trembley said he has not designated any of his current relievers to take over Johnson's role as primary setup man to Alfredo Simon, who likely will get the majority of save chances for now. The complexion of the bullpen could change when Koji Uehara (strained left hamstring) and closer Michael Gonzalez (left shoulder strain) return from the disabled list. Trembley and Kranitz also believe Johnson won't be away for an extended period.
"I hope it's not very long because we need him," Kranitz said. "We need him to be good. He is our main guy in the bullpen that has the experience and has done the job for us."
Uehara's schedule tweaked
Uehara, who was supposed to pitch an inning each at Norfolk on Saturday and today, will have his schedule pushed back to today and Monday. Trembley said the Orioles want Uehara to pitch on consecutive days, but they also want to avoid having him throw in a day game after a night game.
"This gives him a little bit more time before he has to pitch again," Trembley said.
Uehara, 35, hasn't pitched for the Orioles this season. He injured his hamstring during a spring training game March 18. The Orioles will re-evaluate his status after he pitches today and Monday.
With Uehara and Gonzalez on the DL, and Johnson and Kam Mickolio demoted to the minors, none of the projected members of the back end of the Orioles' bullpen this February is on the 25-man roster.
Around the horn
First baseman Rhyne Hughes started his sixth game since being recalled April 24 and his fifth at first base. Garrett Atkins did not start. … Gonzalez is pain-free, but he has not begun throwing, Trembley said. … Catcher Craig Tatum is expected to start today's series finale behind the plate in place of Matt Wieters, who has started 22 of the team's first 24 games. … Center fielder Adam Jones had three hits Friday, his sixth multi-hit game of the season. He is batting .517 in those games (15-for-29) and .100 (7-for-70) in the other 17 games he had played before Saturday night's.