All of a sudden, a comfortable lead had turned into a nail-biter for the Orioles, and Jim Johnson, their rock, seemed to be crumbling. Again.
On Monday, the struggling Johnson found trouble in just two pitches. Nick Swisher, the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning for the Yankees, doubled. With no outs in a 5-4 game, Johnson came within 180 feet from his third blown save since the All-Star break.
With two swings in the seventh inning, back-to-back home runs, the Yankees had erased the Orioles' insurance runs, and the Orioles called on Johnson, their closer, for the save in the ninth. Johnson has been near flawless for most of the year, but recently, the ninth inning has become a nightmare for the team.
In eight appearances since the break, Johnson has surrendered 15 runs (13 earned) in just 6 1/3 innings. That equates to an 18.48 ERA. By the time Johnson took the mound on Monday night, his ERA had risen to 3.71, up 2.5 runs from July 6.
After the Swisher double, Johnson struck out the next batter, Raul Ibanez, swinging. Following a walk, Johnson kept the ball in the infield to induce a fielder's choice on a grounder by Ichiro Suzuki.
That left just Russell Martin. With two outs, Johnson unleashed a one-strike curveball that left the catcher flailing. On the 2-2 pitch, Johnson fanned Martin again and picked up the much-needed save.
"Jimmy's got a lot going on in his gut and his heart," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "I think he's grasped the life of a closer."
In his most recent outing on Friday, Johnson imploded for six runs in just one-third of an inning against the Athletics to pick up his first loss of the year. It was also the most runs or hits he had given up all year.
"It's good to get out back there," Johnson said. "Being a reliever, you have to have a short memory. So it was good to get back out there. I kind of wanted to get out there the next day, but it didn't work out."
During his dismal stretch since the break, Johnson hasn't been missing bats. In the 6 1/3 innings before Monday, he struck out just two batters and threw only 16 swinging strikes against 40 batters.
His pitches showed more life on Monday. A fastball that reached 96 mph set up a change-up that fooled Raul Ibanez for strike three. Martin fanned on both Johnson's curveball and on the pitch that sealed it.
Perhaps it was just because it clinched a rewarding victory for the Orioles, or maybe it was because it earned Johnson a therapeutic, but that last pitch had Showalter impressed.
"The last pitch that he threw to Martin," Showalter said, "was probably as tough a sinker to get on as anybody."
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