NEW YORK – There is a way to crunch the numbers so that Jim Johnson’s 2013 season looks palatable.
The Orioles closer is still leading the majors with 29 saves. He has made 43 appearances in the first half – tied for fourth most in all of baseball and most by any closer -- and has been scored on in just three of his past 18 games.
But after Friday’s 3-2 loss at Yankee Stadium, in which Johnson allowed two runs on two singles, a four-pitch walk, an intentional walk and his own fielding error, the positives are hard to accentuate.
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Bottom line is that Johnson has now blown six saves in the first half of this season compared to three in his All Star 2012 campaign.
“Those three outs are the hardest three outs of the game,” Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. “But we have confidence in Jim, and we know if we have a one-run lead tomorrow, we’ll be happy to get him back out there.”
Johnson (2-7) has now lost as many games this year as he did in his past three seasons combined. He’s walked 14 batters so far in 2013; 15 in all of 2012.
“A lot of it is just getting ahead, and just making good pitches,” said Johnson, who has now blown two of his past four chances after converting 12 straight. “The walks have been uncharacteristic. I told you that a while ago. That’s something I’ve been continuing to work on. We’ll find it. There’s going to be a key there somewhere. I’ll figure it out.”
Johnson apparently will continue getting that chance. When asked whether he was concerned about his closer, Orioles manager Buck Showalter quickly turned the question around to spotlight an offense that managed three hits – including a two-run Wieters home run -- in nine innings against Yankees’ right-hander Ivan Nova (3-2).
“I'm concerned about the way that we swung the bats tonight. There's a lot of factors that go into it,” Showalter said. “We've got some guys who can't pitch every day and some guys can. Certain things will work themselves out. Everybody will seek their level and figure it out.”
Johnson, as always, was hard on himself after the blown save. But this time he was more irritated by his fielding miscue than the hits and walks he allowed.
He entered with a 2-1 lead and immediately allowed a single to ninth-place hitter David Adams.
Brett Gardner then attempted a sacrifice bunt and popped it toward the right side of the infield. Johnson said he considered trying to catch it, decided he wouldn’t get there in time, but was thinking about throwing to second to get Adams.
Instead, he muffed it altogether, allowing Gardner to get to first without being able to make any play.
“The thing that really changed it was me screwing up the whole bunt. Trying to do too many things at once instead of just taking the out and then I screw the whole play up and that kind of escalates the situation,” Johnson said. “Usually, I’m a pretty good fielder. Well, usually I am. I take pride in what I do out there.”
Ichiro Suzuki followed with a sacrifice bunt that moved the runners to second and third, setting up an obvious, one-out walk to the Yankees’ best hitter, Robinson Cano.
Then came Johnson’s second big mistake. He walked cleanup hitter Travis Hafner on four straight balls to force in the tying run.
“The thing with Jim is getting strike one is most important because once you get strike one, they’re going to have to expand, try and swing at your tough pitches,” Wieters said. “And right now, they’re just in hitters’ counts when they can lay off those tough pitches. So strike one will be big for him, and he’ll be ready to go.”
Vernon Wells followed with a single to left on a 2-2 count to give the Yankees (47-39) the victory and extend their winning streak to five games.
The Orioles (48-39) have now lost three of four on this road trip since sweeping the Yankees at Camden Yards last weekend. The Orioles had won five straight against New York, but now find themselves just a half game ahead of the beat-up Bronx Bombers for second place in the American League East.
Johnson’s implosion ruined another gutsy performance by starter Miguel Gonzalez.
Gonzalez struggled with his control, tying his career high with five walks and exiting after six innings with an uneconomical 104 pitches. Yet it was still good enough for Gonzalez’s sixth straight quality start. He allowed just four hits and one run -- on a close play at the plate in which Wells just beat Wieters’ tag in the fourth.
“Miguel was fortunate, but that's him. He's going to bend, but not break,” Showalter said. “You give up four (walks), I think five with an intentional, you've got to consider yourself lucky to get through that with only one run.”
Of the six innings he pitched, Gonzalez retired the Yankees in order once. But he limited the damage, including a bases loaded, one-out situation in the fifth in which he induced a shallow fly ball and a foul pop-up to wiggle out of trouble.
“It wasn’t the best outing,” said Gonzalez, who has a 2.27 ERA in six career games against the Yankees, including the postseason. “I battled through that inning where there was bases loaded and one out. I made pitches when I needed to. That was a tough one.”
All of the Orioles’ offense came on one swing in the second against Nova.
Wieters, who had been in a 6-for-42 slump in his past 13 games and was hitless so far on the road trip, smacked his 11th homer of the season and first since June 24.
Statistically speaking, though, it wasn’t surprising. Wieters has hit eight homers against the Yankees in New York – the most of his career against any road opponent.
And Wieters absolutely owns Nova. He was 9-for-21 with three homers against the Yankees’ right-hander before he faced him on Friday.
“I try not to worry about numbers,” Wieters said. “Most of the time they’re not too good; I’m trying to go out and get hits when I can.”
After the Wieters’ home run, Nova retired 23 of his final 25 batters – going the distance for the first time in his career.
That allowed the Yankees to climb back with two runs in the ninth – and keep Johnson, such a rock for the Orioles last year, searching for answers.
“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working since Day 1 to get to where I need to get, but I’m still going to keep working hard.”firstname.lastname@example.org