MINNEAPOLIS — — The Orioles were hoping Jim Johnson would go down to Triple-A Norfolk, regain his confidence and command and return to the club to occupy a key role at the back end of the bullpen.
Now, they just hope he'll avoid right elbow surgery and be healthy enough to pitch for the club again this season.
Johnson, who made one appearance at Triple-A Norfolk after his May 1 demotion, will visit orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., this week to get a second opinion on his elbow. Johnson saw Orioles team orthopedist Dr. John Wilckens a couple of days ago and he said he was diagnosed with a strained ulnar collateral ligament and "possibly a low-grade tear."
"I felt like I could have pitched through it, but obviously I wasn't able to," Johnson said in a phone interview as he drove from Baltimore to Sarasota, Fla., where he'll begin a rehabilitation program. "I can't straighten out my arm like I normally should be able to, and obviously that's affected everything. I've been getting treatment for it since the first day of the season, but the more you throw, the worse it gets."
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said he was not "terribly worried" about Johnson because of Wilckens' diagnosis. Still, even if Andrews confirms that surgery is not needed, Johnson could miss up to six weeks.
"The prognosis is that he probably needs to rest it a few weeks and then start a throwing program," MacPhail said. "There's no need for surgery, which is good news on the first opinion. We'll just get him back when he's healthy. It's a strain, but it was explained to me that it's not in the area that indicates, 'Oh my gosh, we have a problem.' It's in an area where if you let it rest for a while, it's going to be fine."
Johnson, who had been one of the club's few reliable relief options over the past two seasons and had two stints as the team's closer, was 1-1 with a 6.52 ERA this season and had allowed 15 hits and four walks over 9 2/3 innings when he was optioned to Norfolk.
He said he started feeling some soreness after he made his first appearance on Opening Day against the Tampa Bay Rays and he has been getting treatment on it since, but he didn't think it was that big of a big deal. He also knew the rest of the bullpen was struggling, and he wanted to be a part of the solution, a decision he now says was stupid.
"In hindsight, I should have seen a doctor earlier, but I have to deal with what's at hand, and for me to get back to helping out the team, I have to get this resolved," Johnson said.
Orioles manager Dave Trembley said Johnson was never "not available to pitch."
"He's a tough guy, he wants the ball, he never made excuses, he was accountable," Trembley said. "I can appreciate the fact that he wanted to pick the team up, but in the long term, I don't know how much good he did for himself. Maybe this thing could have been taken care of earlier and it would have never gotten to this point."
MacPhail also lauded Johnson for his toughness and called him a "terrific kid," but said: "You don't ever want a player to do anything that will potentially create a bigger issue for himself and for the team. We were not aware of at the time, anything that is potentially harmful for him. We never would have put him in that situation."
Johnson's injury is the latest to affect the bullpen, which has long been a problem area for the Orioles. This season alone, Koji Uehara, the projected seventh-inning guy, missed the first five weeks of the season. Closer Michael Gonzalez made three rocky appearances before he went on the disabled list with a strained shoulder. Gonzalez has been pain-free during his long-toss program, but he's nowhere close to returning to the club.
Two of the Orioles' better young relievers — left-hander Wilfrido Perez and right-hander Luis Lebron — are on the minor league disabled list. Perez is experiencing shoulder soreness, and Lebron is scheduled to see Andrews on Monday with the expectation that he'll need Tommy John ligament-reconstruction surgery.
"Clearly, with Koji, Gonzalez and Jimmy not at 100 percent — which now looks like since the beginning of the year — those are issues that are difficult to overcome when you don't have the benefit of an offseason," MacPhail said. "Fortunately for us, Koji is back and has been effective. [Alfredo] Simon has done a nice job in that role, and [ Will] Ohman has done a nice job. [Cla] Meredith has done fine. This is one area where, internally, we had enough depth to deal with some pretty severe issues that hit us right at Opening Day.
"Our offense, unfortunately, has not shown the same amount of depth. We've lost [ Brian] Roberts and [ Felix] Pie, and we haven't been able to do what it looks like we've been able to do in the bullpen. We've been able to get the ship stabilized, and in the offensive area, we still need to do more there."
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