Orioles notebook: Jim Johnson dominant in closing role

Right-hander has been perfect in save situations this season, leads majors

May 22, 2012|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

After Jim Johnson seized the closer's role in the second half of last year and converted his final eight save chances, the Orioles knew they had a guy who could finish games if they needed him to.

But there was also the possibility that Johnson could move to the starting rotation. Then there was the lower-back strain that cost him a good chunk of the spring, making it uncertain whether he would be ready for Opening Day.

"I went through some periods in spring where I was kind of going, 'Boy, I don't know if he's going to quite get there,'" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said about Johnson. "We had talked about, 'What if?' And I remember he finally had an outing toward the end of spring where we said, 'There it is.' You could see it on his face, he knew it was there."

Yes, the Orioles knew the 28-year-old right-hander with the power sinker was good, but this good? Heading into Tuesday, Johnson had converted all 15 of his save chances this season and owned a streak of 23 straight saves going back to 2011. He had seven saves in the Orioles' past 11 games and leads the majors in that category.

"With J.J., it doesn't surprise me," said fellow reliever Kevin Gregg, whom Johnson replaced as closer. "Seeing his stuff last year, and obviously playing against him before, I knew what he had. After seeing it last year, I realized as long as he stayed healthy, he's got something special."

Johnson said he feels good and is enjoying what's happening in Baltimore because of what the team is accomplishing. But the no-nonsense Johnson isn't going to get caught up in his early success.

"I am having fun doing what I'm doing, but I'm having fun not because of me personally, but more for what the team is doing. The team is doing well," Johnson said. "There's a guy on the grounds crew that said, "Hey, I like seeing you up there on the save leaders [board], and I'm like, 'Well, I like seeing our pennant leading on the flag poles.' That kind of stuff plays more of a factor with me."

It's that attitude and the long path Johnson has taken to this point — six seasons in the minors before his big league debut and several lengthy battles with injuries — that garners him respect from his teammates and the organization.

"Jimmy, there's been a process with him," Showalter said. "I remember some of the things that were told to me by some people when I got here about Jimmy's ability to pitch at the end of the game, initially. And I didn't agree with it."

Johnson has gotten his opportunity and excelled. He said he still would like to move back to the rotation one day, "but we're not worried about that now."

For now, he's the Orioles' closer — and likely an All-Star closer.

"He should [be]," Gregg said. "Without a doubt."

Bundy nearing promotion

The Orioles are getting ready to promote 19-year-old pitching phenom Dylan Bundy, and it appears he'll move up just one level from Low-A Delmarva to High-A Frederick. The club has not confirmed the move yet — it likely will come after his scheduled five-inning outing this weekend — and team officials are still deciding whether to keep him in a six-man rotation.

"That's one of the aspects we're discussing,'' Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "I try to focus on the skills he's developing. What's important are the skills he develops to become a major league pitcher.

"We want him to get where he needs to be to be a major league pitcher, and that means working on changing speeds and his breaking pitches."

In other words, the organization is more concerned with Bundy working on his secondary pitches than whom he's pitching against. Duquette gave a hint at the path Bundy might be going when he pointed out that director of pitching development Rick Peterson "uses the analogy that Bundy is in his freshman year."

Since Peterson is known for his conservative approach to developing young pitchers, that would seem to indicate that Bundy, who has not allowed an earned run in 30 pro innings, won't jump to Double-A — at least not this time.

Ortiz homer still a topic

Although David Ortiz's mammoth home run against Tommy Hunter on Monday night didn't play a huge part in the outcome of the game, the Boston Red Sox designated hitter's bat flip and stroll around the bases is something that will stick with the Orioles for a while.

On the record, though, they are downplaying it.

"It wasn't that big a deal," Showalter said. "It was only 28 seconds, and I guess you have to subtract the 10 seconds the ball was in flight."

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