When Jim Johnson entered the ninth Friday, I’m sure there were some nervous feelings among the club’s fan base. After all, Johnson had blown three straight save opportunities and nine straight.
Since I’m not a pitching coach, I’m not going to claim I know exactly what’s been wrong with Johnson. But from a very simplistic view, he hasn’t been able to command his pitches for strikes, especially early on in the count. So he’s getting behind in counts and hitters can wait on their pitch. And they’ve been getting good swings on those pitches – especially when his sinker gets elevated.
Well, on Friday, Johnson came out attacking. It took him nine pitches – and some more Manny Machado wizardry at third base – to get three outs. Eight of those nine pitches were strikes, including three straight to fan the first A’s batter, Brandon Moss.
Being aggressive in the strike zone was one of the things he has been working on, Johnson said. It paid off Friday. And it’s something he has to keep doing. Because if he can’t keep hitters guessing, he is susceptible to hits.
“It was part of what I was working on in between [outings],” Johnson said. “Things went well, so it translated onto to the field.”
The save, by the way, was his 40th this year. Only Johnson and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel have that many saves in 2013.
Johnson also made a little franchise history. He becomes the first Orioles closer to ever have two 40-save seasons, and he has done it consecutively.
For all the complaints about Johnson this year, you have to remember that this guy has been exceptionally good for long stretches of the past two seasons. And you could just tell by his demeanor Friday night that he wanted to dominate.
“You could see the look in his eye. Sometimes we need that as players, we need to have a little kick in the rear end. He’s been great for us, he’s been incredible,” said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. “He’s had his ups and downs, but who doesn’t over the course of 162 games? I thought tonight he came out really aggressive. He threw the ball incredible. We all looked at each other and were like, ‘Whoa. This is almost a different guy.’ And that’s great. Sometimes we need to play with a chip on our shoulder and I think he did that tonight.”
Now, let’s transition to Roberts. Talk about a guy with a look in his eye and a chip on his shoulder (and a career to extend). Roberts hadn’t hit a grand slam in nearly four years before his blast in the fourth inning. That was impressive.
But what perhaps was more important was his eight-inning steal. That was his first steal and first attempt since April 4 – the slide in which he injured his hamstring.
If Roberts is fully back, the baserunning aspect has to come with it. In his heyday, Roberts was one of the most disruptive forces on the basepaths. Pitchers were more worried about him on first than they were the batter at the plate. If he can get anywhere close to that it will be a huge lift for the Orioles.
One last thing: I watch this Oakland A’s team and it really reminds me of the Orioles. They have better pitching; the Orioles have much more power.
But they both have a way of lulling you to sleep and then suddenly putting up enough runs or making the one key play that gets them a win. I believe one of these teams makes the playoffs and the other doesn’t. So that’s why this three game series, in my opinion, is exceptionally important.
If the Orioles can somehow sweep this series, the clubs will be in a dead heat with 33 games to play. And if they end up tied for the wild card at the end of the year, the Orioles would host the one game play-in (or one-game playoff) because, with Friday’s win, they’ve clinched the season series.