(Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
The butterflies in his stomach were doing barrel rolls when Steve Johnson, the Baltimore kid, took the mound for the Orioles on Sunday in his major league debut.
Doesn't every kid who's ever split the plate with a fastball or felt the sweet crack of the bat in his hands dream of this moment?
Now here it was for Johnson: eighth inning, Orioles down 3-0 to Detroit, which might as well have been 10-0 with the great Justin Verlander pitching for the Tigers.
Get loose, someone yelled to Johnson in the bullpen. Moments later, the outfield gate swung open and the hometown kid trotted onto the field at Camden Yards to face a fearsome Tigers lineup in front of an announced 30,439.
Oh, it was the moment the 24-year-old had dreamed about, all right. Except now as he warmed up with Jhonny Peralta in the on-deck circle, it felt more like a Maalox Moment.
"My heart was pounding pretty good," he'd recall later. "I had to really settle down. I always talk to myself, and it's usually yelling."
Now he was doing some of that, dropping a barrage of choice words on himself to calm down. In the stands behind home plate, his dad, former Orioles right-hander Dave Johnson, could relate to what the kid was going through.
Relate? Heck, Dave Johnson was practically having sympathy pains.
"My first pitch, with the Pirates in '87 against the Reds, I thought I was gonna throw it over the backstop," Dave said. "It's like an out-of-body experience."
So here was Steve Johnson, the St. Paul's grad, the first Baltimore kid since Damon Buford in '95 to play for the Orioles, fighting his nerves, big-time.
It took a while to win the battle. He ran the count to 3-2 on Peralta and walked him on a fastball that might have been an inch inside, if that. He walked Alex Avila on five pitches.
Ramon Santiago moved the runners up with a sac bunt. But then Johnson struck out Don Kelly on three pitches: a 91-mph four-seam fastball, a gorgeous 71-mph curveball that practically gave Kelly whiplash and a 92-mph four-seamer. And he followed that by fanning Austin Jackson on a 91-mph heater.
"He missed with a close pitch" to Peralta, Dave Johnson said of his kid's inning. "But he came back. He's a battler. He spent eight years in the minor leagues, but he's come back and he's battled through some tough times."
Now, as he walked off the mound after striking out Jackson, the Orioles fans leaped to their feet and gave him a long standing ovation you could hear in Delaware.
"That was pretty cool," Johnson said. "I'll remember that for a while."
But then came the ninth inning and Steve Johnson's welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment.
It started innocently enough. Quintin Berry flied out to left. And now it was the always-dangerous Miguel Cabrera digging in at the plate.
In the Orioles dugout, alarm bells were clanging in Buck Showalter's head. Maybe they were clanging in Steve Johnson's head, too. But the kid wasn't going to back down now.
So he went to work on Cabrera. The big Tigers third baseman fouled off a rocket that looked like it would take out a window in one of the suites down the left-field line.
Then with the count 2-and-2, Johnson got cute. He tried to slip a change-up past Cabrera.
The change-up practically went into orbit before landing some 20 rows back in the center-field bleachers.
"I left a pitch up and he got it," Johnson said. "He's pretty good."
Yeah, just a little, seeing as how Cabrera is now batting .330 with 20 homers and 73 RBIs.
"He shouldn't feel like Cabrera's picking on him," Showalter agreed.
But here again, Johnson showed you some composure. Showed you some heart, too.
He got the next batter, the massive and equally dangerous Prince Fielder, to fly out to center. "I knew I had to bear right down and go at him," Johnson said. "You can't let one pitch affect you. Or one home run."
After he got Brennan Boesch on a grounder to second to end the inning, Johnson got yet another standing ovation from the crazies behind the O's dugout as fans in the stands congratulated and high-fived his dad.
Big day for Steve Johnson, the Rule 5 guy who has scrapped and clawed his way up every rung of baseball's organizational ladder. Big day for his dad, too, and the entire Johnson family.
"I thought he threw the ball pretty well, once he got his feet on the ground a little bit there," Showalter said. "... This is a guy who has a feel for pitching, just like his dad."
In the end, though, the numbers game and the revolving door that is the Orioles roster this season caught up to Steve Johnson again.
A half-hour after his major league debut, the kid was sent back down to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for Monday's starter, Chris Tillman.
But Showalter hinted we haven't seen the last of Steve Johnson, not with the way this Orioles season is going.
Whatever happens, the Baltimore kid will never forget the steamy Sunday at Camden Yards when he finally got to the Show.
That's a day that stays with him forever.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."
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