The Orioles may need to remove Jim Johnson from the closer role… (Doug Kapustin, Reuters )
It doesn't take a baseball savant to figure out that the Orioles are in a heck of a fix. They can't win with Jim Johnson giving away games in the ninth inning night after night, and they probably can't get to the playoffs without him.
So, what's a manager to do?
Buck Showalter has loyally and stubbornly stuck with Johnson this week, and the Orioles have reeled off a string of come-from-ahead losses in Arizona that may be remembered in early October as a big reason the Orioles have to watch the postseason from their living rooms.
When they arrived at Chase Field on Monday, they were in the midst of a terrific road trip and seemed to be getting ready to push the slumping Tampa Bay Rays out of second place in the American League East. They were inching closer to the first-place Boston Red Sox with a lot of head-to-head competition against both of those teams looming ahead.
Now, they're left with no choice but to take consolation in the fact that they got back from their long western swing with a 4-4 record, and everybody knows that cliché about playing .500 on the road and winning at home.
Of course, that's no consolation, because the Orioles have not been all that impressive at home lately either. They took advantage of the struggling San diego Padres and San Francisco Giants last week, but they apparently left their heart in San Francisco, because they looked tired and disjointed against a scrappy Diamondbacks team that should remind them of their former selves.
It's not just about the Johnson and his recent collapse, but that's where the focus is at the moment because the Orioles were leading every one of the three games against the D-backs in the late innings. Last year's team — with last year's Jim Johnson — would have swept the series, overtaken the Rays and made the Red Sox feel their hot breath.
This isn't last year's team. This isn't last year's bullpen. That's why it's the Diamondbacks' record in one-run games that has everybody talking and it's the Diamondbacks who have won 12 extra-inning games this season. The Orioles have a losing record in one-run games after setting a major league record for winning percentage in those games in 2012.
Job One is to get the bullpen straightened out, which may require Showalter to boost — at least temporarily — newly acquired reliever Francisco Rodriguez into the closer role or, at the very least, make it known that Johnson isn't going to automatically get up when the Orioles have the lead going into the ninth inning.
When Johnson had a short flurry of blown saves and losses earlier this season, it was easy enough to keep sending him out there because he had just come off a club record string of successful save conversions. Now, it's pretty clear that there's more than the law of averages at work here. He now has five blown saves in his past 17 opportunities and looks — on the mound — like a guy with a big crack in his self-confidence instead of the major league save leader.
Showalter has to walk a fine line here, because he knows the great turnaround that happened last season would not have happened without Johnson, and he also knows that the Orioles need to get Johnson back on track to have a reasonable chance of staying in the race for the AL East title. They're still just a couple games out of the second wild-card position, so it really is too soon to panic, but they're going to have to recapture some of their 2012 mojo down the stretch.
The message board geniuses can scream all they want for Johnson's head, but it should not be lost on anyone that the Orioles were shut out for 12 straight innings after they scored four times in the second inning Wednesday. If just one more of their 14 hits had come in a meaningful situation between the third and 14th innings, they would have flown home with a winning road trip. If they hadn't come up empty with runners in scoring position in six innings after their only scoring rally, we might be talking about something else right now.
The bottom line: The games the Orioles have been losing of late are the kind of games they almost never lost last year.
Obviously, Johnson's nine blown saves and seven losses are a big reason for that, but they aren't the only reason.
He needs to step aside and figure some things out. Everybody else just needs to step up before it's too late.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.