Orioles reliever Johnson returns to form

After ineffectiveness, injury last year, righty has reclaimed setup role

April 27, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Orioles reliever Jim Johnson, never one to seek the spotlight, acknowledged that he's happy with the way he has been pitching, but not before reminding a reporter that the season is not yet a month old.

Johnson's re-emergence as a top setup man has been one of the encouraging early developments for the Orioles, who at this time last season were preparing to send the right-hander to the minor leagues. With his ERA at 6.52 through 10 appearances last April, Johnson was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on May 1. He had one outing for the Tides before he was shut down with right elbow inflammation. It took nearly four months for him to return to the big leagues.

"I wanted to make up for lost time," Johnson said of his mindset heading into this season. "Honestly, I felt bad about how things went down last year. I kind of felt like I left a lot out there by missing those couple of months. When I was back rehabbing and watching everybody grind it out and still not winning many games, it kind of rubbed me wrong. It wasn't that I had to prove anything. I just wanted to help more than anything, and getting healthy was the best way to do so."

Johnson, 27, whose arsenal includes a heavy sinker, a mid-90s fastball and an improving changeup, pitched two dominant innings in the Orioles' 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night. He allowed one hit and struck out four of the seven hitters he faced, lowering his ERA to 2.79 through eight outings this season.

"For me, that was the Johnson we saw when he first came up," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after Tuesday's game. "He was overpowering. He got some movement. He had the changeup coming out of the same slot. That was impressive."

In the seventh inning Tuesday, Johnson needed just seven pitches to dispose of three Red Sox. He struck out Jason Varitek on three pitches, two 94 mph fastballs and an 88 mph changeup. He got Jacoby Ellsbury to line out and struck out Dustin Pedroia on four pitches, the final one a 95 mph fastball that Pedroia couldn't catch up to.

Over the two innings of work, Johnson threw 25 pitches, 18 for strikes, and got eight swings and misses.

"Jimmy's had a good look on his face since the first day of spring training," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's a juggling act, but we like where J.J. is physically and mentally. I think a lot of people forget that this guy has had some challenges physically, too."

Knowing Johnson's injury history, Showalter has been careful to limit his workload. Tuesday's outing was only the second time this season in which Johnson has gotten more than three outs.

Stuck in neutral

During the pre-series meeting Tuesday, Showalter and the coaching staff encouraged the Orioles be more aggressive on the bases. The Orioles entered Wednesday night's game with a major league-low four stolen bases. Every other team had at least as many successful steals as the Orioles had attempts (five).

"You'd be probably surprised how many guys are on their own to run," Showalter said. "We haven't had as many opportunities when you are down a certain amount of runs, but I've found those things come in bunches, too. But I'd rather they have a little more recklessness now and then."

Brian Roberts is essentially the only accomplished base stealer among Orioles regulars, but he's just 1-for-1 on stolen base attempts this season.

Asked whether Roberts' lack of aggressiveness on the bases was a result of his previous injuries, Showalter said: "There's been certain things — I wouldn't want the whole world to know about it, the opposition more importantly — that's become more of a challenge for him. But we will take him out there every day he can give us."

Jack of all trades

Showalter had been mum about the identity of his third-string, emergency catcher, but it became obvious Wednesday when utility infielder Cesar Izturis put on the catching equipment and was behind the plate for Chris Tillman's bullpen session.

"It's just in case something happens," said Izturis, who said he hasn't caught since Little League. "I feel all right, but it's not easy. You have to get used to it. Before you get into a game, you have to have that feeling of doing it. I'm not going to catch nine innings, obviously. I'd have to catch two [innings] or one inning, whatever it is. Hopefully, nothing will happen with [Matt WIeters], but it that happens, I want to be prepared."

Showalter said that with regular backup catcher Jake Fox getting some starts in left field, the club wanted to be prepared in the event that Wieters sustained an injury during the game and couldn't continue.

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