Orioles thoughts and observations on Jim Johnson, the bullpen and the big picture

The Baltimore Sun

After this week’s disaster in the desert, the Orioles are off today.

After losing three straight games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, you’d think a day off would be welcome. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that some of his players would love to play today to get that losing taste out of their mouths.

“I wanna play,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “But it’s a scheduled day off. Let’s get the hell away from the game.”

The off day is much needed for a taxed Orioles bullpen. The Orioles used eight different pitchers in Wednesday’s 14-inning loss.

Showalter wasn’t too concerned about Bud Norris, who was getting an extra day of rest between starts. He said he’s a pitcher who throws a lot of pitches on his work day, much more than the 14 pitches he threw in Wednesday’s final inning.

Lost in the defeat was how good Tommy Hunter was in a difficult situation. He threw three perfect innings, tying his season high -- also doing it back on April 20 -- and probably could have gone another had he not needed to come out for a pinch hitter in the 14th.

But the Orioles bullpen is battered in more ways than one. We know about Jim Johnson’s struggles, but his blown save Wednesday could have negative ramifications on his bullpen brethren.

Hunter has thrown in four of the last six games, including yesterday’s three-inning stint. Francisco Rodriguez has thrown four of five games, as has Darren O’Day.

The off day will help -- and Showalter was considering bringing an extra pitcher up for Friday -- but these weren’t easy innings for these guys. A lot of the games on this West Coast trip were close late in the game. And if these are the guys who fans want to pick from to replace Johnson as the club’s closer, they’re pretty beat up as well -- at least physically.

Showalter has trumpeted his dedication to do all he can to keep the bullpen healthy.

He’s also pledged his dedication to keeping Johnson as the team’s closer, but to be honest, he’s not one to tell the media after the game that he’s going to make an abrupt switch like that.

Basically, we’ll know it when we see it.

Over the past two days, I’ve had plenty of fans ask why Showalter continues to stick with Johnson.

We all know that Showalter is immensely loyal to his players. That’s why they play so hard for him. Clubhouse chemistry is paramount. And in tough times like this, he wants his team to  stick together -- 25 players against the world.

The bottom line is that losing is the biggest detrement to clubhouse chemistry. Given the years some players in the Orioles clubhouse are having, they can’t afford to look back in September and see nine losses in games in which they took the lead into the ninth inning. That’s the difference between the postseason and fishing in October.

What people don’t see about Johnson is how much of a fighter he is. His entire career has been a battle. He’s the guy who immediately goes to the exercise bike after an outing -- win or lose -- and comes back to the clubhouse with his shirt doused in sweat.

Fans see him on the mound and in postgame interviews, but that’s barely a sliver of what Johnson truly is. Showalter tosses the “want to” line out a lot -- sometimes too much after tough losses, but it applies to Johnson. He’s going to try to work harder to get out of this hole.

But that might be the exact reason why Johnson needs to take a step back, stop running so hard and examine what’s going on here. There’s no doubt he has the physical tools to help this team to the playoffs. He did it last year, which is something all the hyenas calling for his head forget about. But he’s got to get back to what make him the best closer in the game last season, and if that means being moved from the closer role for the time being, that’s what it will take.

At the same time, Johnson was the pitcher he was last season because he got help. Would last year’s Orioles have gone scoreless through 12 innings at the end of a game? Would last year’s team have shut down the Diamondbacks with a 4-2 lead in the seventh? Would last year’s team have stopped the bleeding after one walk-off loss instead of reeling from the sting on three straight?

That’s why the Orioles made the playoffs last season -- and with 42 games left in the season and many of them against the American League East division -- this is when we will truly find out whether the Orioles are a playoff-caliber team and can become 25 men against the world again.

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