As the Orioles' improbable run of success continues this year, as this upstart, patchwork club keeps churning out victories, the comparisons to the Orioles' 1989 “Why Not?” season become inevitable.
On Wednesday night, in a 9-2 clubbing of the Seattle Mariners that completed a three-game sweep and extended the Orioles' winning streak to five, the similarities to 1989 became borderline ridiculous.
Exactly 23 years to the day that unheralded right-hander Dave Johnson, “The Pride of Middle River” as he was trumpeted, notched his first major league victory at Memorial Stadium for his hometown Orioles in impressive, complete-game fashion, another rookie named Johnson took to the mound.
This time it was Dave's 24-year-old son, Kingsville's Steve, making his second appearance for the Orioles at Camden Yards and first start as a big leaguer. He, too, picked up his first big league win on Aug. 8 for the hometown team that no one expected to be in a pennant race.
“It's something I was thinking about for a long time: Get my first win and have [my dad] here,” said Steve Johnson, who allowed two runs on five hits in six strong innings. “And the way those days worked out, 23 years to the day, it's just special. It's all I can really say about it. It means a lot to me.”
Johnson is the first Marylander to pitch for the Orioles since Cheverly's John Bale in 2001 and the first to make a start for the club since — you guessed it — Johnson's dad in October 1991.
“I'm just so happy for him because, you know, he has worked so hard,” said Dave Johnson, who is now a MASN broadcaster. “He has overcome a lot. Surely, nothing was handed to him. He did a nice job. I'm happy for him.”
The announced crowd of 17,312 soaked in the moment, partying like it was, well, 1989 — when the Orioles rebounded from their worst season ever to stay in the pennant hunt until the last week of the season.
On Wednesday, the fans screamed loudly when Nick Markakis and Mark Reynolds each homered, and many rose to their feet before the seventh inning when it was obvious Johnson was done for the night.
“It was great and it was unbelievable. Words really can't explain. I know a lot of people texted me and said they were coming,” Johnson said. “A lot of people from my high school and people I went to high school with. It was great.”
Manager Buck Showalter considered leaving Johnson in for at least one batter in the seventh, so he could walk off the field to the cheers. But because he had already thrown 97 pitches and had flown from Norfolk, Va., on Wednesday morning, Showalter decided to bring in left-hander Troy Patton to start the inning.
“I wanted to send him back out there for one hitter in the next inning, but I didn't want Troy to come into an unclean inning,” Showalter said. “I would have liked him to come off the mound, but it just wasn't in his best interest.”
Still, Showalter said the magnitude of what Johnson was going through wasn't lost on him.
“Stevie was good, huh? That was fun to watch,” Showalter said. “I tried to watch it as a manager trying to win a game but also a fan of those types of situations.”
The Orioles (60-51) are in a three-way tie for the top American League wild-card spot and have won eight of their past 10. They haven't been nine games over .500 since June 26.
From the beginning Wednesday, Johnson was in control — because of solid control. He allowed a single in the first, but otherwise struck out the side on 12 pitches — all were strikes.
In comparison, on Aug. 8, 1989, Dave Johnson allowed a triple to the first batter he faced, the Minnesota Twins' Al Newman, and gave up an RBI groundout to future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett before settling down.
So the kid one-upped the dad in the first. In fact, Steve Johnson's nine strikeouts were more than his dad ever had in a big league start — though Dave Johnson did give up fewer runs and pitch longer in his first big league win.
“He's always told me I've been able to strike more people out,” Steve Johnson said. “But I always tell him he was able to go longer in the game. And I think he let everyone know that, too.”
The son had to wiggle out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second inning. Munenori Kawasaki made it easier with a squeeze bunt right back at Johnson for the second out, and a popout ended the threat. He then cruised into the sixth when he served up a two-run homer to Kyle Seager.
Overall, Johnson threw 97 pitches, 67 for strikes. And, fitting for this-can't-be-happening season, Johnson was supposed to start Wednesday for Triple-A Norfolk but was needed in Baltimore because Tommy Hunter, who was scheduled for Wednesday, had to warm up in the bullpen during Tuesday's 14-inning win.
Johnson, whom the Orioles acquired in the George Sherrill trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009 and could have been a minor league free agent this offseason but stayed with the Orioles this winter, got the emergency call after posting a 2.86 ERA in 19 games (14 starts) at Norfolk.
Johnson was first called up in early July and flew to Seattle but didn't pitch and was optioned back to the minors. He made his big league debut July 15 with two innings of relief against the Detroit Tigers but was immediately returned to Triple-A Norfolk again.
“My first appearance, my heart was throbbing pretty good,” he said. “To start the game today, I was pretty calm. I wasn't expecting that. I was expecting to have the same feeling, but it was a little better."
He hadn't made a start at Camden Yards since he was a 14-year-old freshman at St. Paul's and pitched against powerhouse Calvert Hall in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship game in 2002. He threw a seven-inning complete game as the Crusaders won, 4-1, for their first MIAA title.
This one was a little better attended, though – with St. Paul's bringing at least 40 alumni and faculty to the game.
Johnson's new teammates showed, too, bashing former Oriole Kevin Millwood (4-10). Millwood lasted just four innings, yielding seven runs on eight hits.
Catcher Matt Wieters followed up his two-homer game Tuesday with two doubles and five RBIs on Wednesday. It's the fourth time in his career, and third time this season, that Wieters has driven in five runs in a game.
Wieters caught all 14 innings Tuesday, but he told Showalter that he wanted to catch the rookie, to help put him at ease, and Showalter agreed.
“It's nice to get a guy's first start to see what you can do to get him through it,” Wieters said. “The way he threw the ball, I think he would have been fine with anyone back there.”
Showalter wouldn't commit to giving Johnson another start — saying there are a lot of moving parts right now — but that seems inevitable.
Johnson, though, is taking nothing for granted, not after deciding to stick with the Orioles and watching that decision pay off.
“I want to be here. I wanted to sign back here. Obviously, I wanted this to happen,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get here with the Orioles, my hometown team. It's who I grew up watching, it's who my dad played for. There's a lot of things going for it. And to finally get here and make it happen, it means a whole lot.”