One of the most important things about Sunday’s 2-1 win at Yankee Stadium happened after Adam Jones homered against Mariano Rivera.
Closer Jim Johnson entered the game. That part shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Even though Johnson blew his last one-run save at Yankee Stadium on Friday and even though he has blown six saves this year (twice as many as he had in 2012) and even though Tommy Hunter has pitched well as the set-up man and is more of a traditional, fireballing reliever, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he believes Johnson is the club’s best option to be a consistent and readily available force in save situations.
So Johnson got the call in what is arguably the hardest scenario for a closer in baseball: One run up, on the road at Yankee Stadium with fans going crazy.
Johnson struck out the first two batters he faced: Lyle Overbay and Luis Cruz. He then got Eduardo Nunez to ground out to end the game. Three up, three down in 11 pitches (seven for strikes).
“I'm so proud of Jimmy,” Showalter said. “There's nobody here who wants the Orioles to win more than him and I'd ask him to do anything and he'd do it.”
When Showalter was asked what he thought the clean save meant to Johnson, the manager said, “He'll close the door on it and know there's another challenge right around the corner. … Jimmy and I talk. We always talk. I understand that's a hard, hard job and he's one of the best in the game and he's set a very high bar for himself. … We're lucky to have him. I've said it many times. He's a horse.”
Johnson admitted that he wanted to get back into a close game soon after his blown save Friday.
“Obviously, that’s what you want," Johnson said. "You want the ball as soon as possible. Try to redeem yourself and get yourself back into a groove. … I always want the ball. I want to be out there and I want to do what I can to help the team win games.”
Of the 11 pitches Johnson threw, three were two-seam fastballs, three were four-seam fastballs, three were curveballs and two were change-ups, according to mlb.com’s Gameday. Four times his fastball was recorded at 96 mph.
“I felt like I was more aggressive with my fastball today and located a lot better,” he said. “I think that’s been a big difference.”
He struck out two batters without allowing a baserunner in a save situation for the first time since May 29. But Johnson said afterward he’s not concerned at all about getting strikeouts.
“I’ll take the ground balls. We have a great defense for a reason and … I’m usually trying to force contact and make them hit it toward our Gold Glover (J.J. Hardy) up the middle,” Johnson said. “Let them do the work. But strikeouts are usually by accident. I’ll take the 1-2-3 and I’m sure Buck enjoys it. A little less stress for him.”
I’m sure it was a little less stressful for Orioles fans, too. At least until Johnson runs into trouble again in the ninth – such is the life of a closer, even one with 30 saves before the All-Star Break.