Johnson wiser, coming into his own

Orioles closer Jim Johnson might not be a marquee name, but the right-hander is well known around the American League, a reputation that stands to grow in his first full season as the O’s ninth-inning man.

“He’s got great stuff,” White Sox veteran Paul Konerko said after Johnson notched his fifth save of the season against Chicago Tuesday night. “Probably some of the most underrated stuff if you ask any hitter in the league. There are a lot of guys you want to face before him. He has a big heavy sinker and a big curve ball. You don’t usually see those two things together.

We’ve known about him. Everybody in the game knows, but my guess is he’ll have a good year and you’ll hear his name more.”

Orioles third base coach DeMarlo Hale –who spent six seasons in Boston prior to joining Baltimore this season – said Johnson’s pitchability is what made him a guy the Red Sox had difficulty facing, with the right-hander’s multiple weapons a topic of series meetings.

“I think he’s respected among the people you compete with,” Hale said of Johnson who pitched to a 2.22 ERS in his final 56 games last year. “How the media perceives it, he’s not the flavor and the name, but he’s a guy at the back-end of the bullpen that has got stuff to get you out. It’s sinking, he’s got a power fastball, breaking ball, and he pitches well.

Hitters they know about Johnson; it isn’t just the Red Sox.”

Slowed with a back injury this spring, Johnson got progressively better as Spring Training progressed and the 28-year-old –who maintained all throughout camp he would be ready for the season – has gone 6-for-6 in save opportunities to start the season, extending his streak from last year to 14 for his last 14.  It is a far cry from Johnson’s performance in the ninth-inning in 2009, when he went 10-for-16 in save opportunities, his ERA jumping from 2.55 in the eighth to 6.11 in the ninth. The Orioles signed Michael Gonzalez to a two-year deal that offseason and after Kevin Gregg struggled in his first season closing in Baltimore, Johnson was officially named closer to start the season.

“[Being a] little bit wiser helps,” Johnson said when asked what has changed for him since ’09. “Little bit of luck never hurts either. Not anything that’s so different, but I think the experience goes a long way. Failure, you learn through failure, better than you do success.

“Also I have a good support around me, good pitching coach, good catcher, other pitchers, defense behind me, all that plays a factor into it as well.”

The second-longest active tenured Oriole –behind Nick Markakis – Johnson was selected by the Orioles in the fifth round of the 2001 Draft and he made his Major League debut with one start in 2006. He made his first Opening Day roster in 2009 and after missing most of 2010 with injury, Johnson became the Orioles’ most dependable reliever last season. He set career-highs in games (69), wins (6), innings pitched (91) and strikeouts (58) and ranked among the AL leaders in relief innings, wins and groundball percentage.

“If I do what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t care if anybody really pays too much attention,” Johnson said of his under-the-radar status. “You can get lost here I think, but that doesn’t really make too much of a difference to me.”

Added Hale: “What happens when he drops 35 saves, because he hasn’t had that opportunity to have a season with 35-40 saves, when he drops that 35-40 saves. It’s like, oh [wow]. You know? It’s not just the Red Sox…this guy’s got very good stuff.”

2 Comments

Johnson is very good. Strop on the other hand is really looking good and has the power arm for a closer. This bodes very well for the O’s who do not need Gregg and should unload him for a prospect even if they have to pay most of his salary. This opens up a spot in the pen for a long reliever. Bundy, Britton, Bergesen, Birken etc. any of them would be more helpful then Gregg at this point. C’mon Dan make it happen.

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