SARASOTA, Fla. — Earlier this spring, an Orioles official was talking causally about the competition for the fifth starter's spot. He mentioned Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jair Jurrjens.
And then he paused.
"I'm forgetting somebody," the official said, before slapping his hand on his head. "Steve Johnson. You CAN'T forget Steve Johnson."
Johnson, the 25-year-old Baltimore native and St. Paul's graduate, cracks a smile when the story is retold.
"I've always been that guy. I was never a high prospect or anything like that. I don't really worry about that stuff," said Johnson, who was 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) with the Orioles last year. "I tell everybody my stuff isn't going to wow you if you see me one or two times. It's not going to be impressive to you. It's kind of what I do over time."
What Johnson has done in his career is survive, battle, and slowly climb up depth charts — at times passing much more ballyhooed players — seemingly always putting himself in the conversation. He'll attempt to do it again Friday when he starts against the Tampa Bay Rays in a Grapefruit League game in Port Charlotte. So far, in nine spring innings, he has allowed two runs on six hits and four walks while striking out seven batters.
"I think he speaks for himself when he pitches. This guy always seems to find a way to get it done," said Orioles starter Chris Tillman. "At first I was like, 'How is this guy doing this? What is going on?' But it seemed like it was an everyday thing. It seemed like he was out there in the fifth, sixth or seventh getting it done. It goes to show a lot about him."
Johnson, the son of former Orioles right-hander and current MASN broadcaster Dave Johnson, was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 13th round of the 2005 amateur draft out of St. Paul's.
Even back then, as a teenager, he talked about making the big leagues with a determined confidence.
"We wanted to be the best players," said Orioles outfielder Trayvon Robinson, who roomed with Johnson in the Dodgers' organization. "By me being his roommate, I knew what was going on in his head because he talked baseball every night. I knew he had it. Early on, it just felt like people didn't recognize it because he didn't throw 96 [mph]. But I knew personally he can pitch."
Johnson spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before finally making his big-league debut July 15 with two innings of relief against the eventual American League champion Detroit Tigers.
It wasn't an easy road to Camden Yards for the kid from Kingsville.
He spent nearly five seasons in the Dodgers organization before being included in the July 2009 trade with infielder Josh Bell for closer George Sherrill. The Orioles failed to put Johnson on their 40-man roster that winter, and he was taken by the San Francisco Giants in the Rule 5 draft. When he failed to make the Giants that spring, he returned to the Orioles and had arguably the worst season of his career at Double-A Bowie, potentially plummeting his status in the organization.
He rebounded the next year and, at the end of the 2011 season, Johnson became a minor league free agent. He could have gone anywhere looking for a fresh start. But he needed to give it one more chance.
"To make it with my hometown team, to make it with the team my dad made it with, it's more than just getting to the big leagues," Johnson said. "It's why I signed back last year. I could have went somewhere else and tried it out, but I wanted to give it at least one more year to make it with my hometown team."
In 2012, he excelled at Triple-A Norfolk, made it to the majors and served as a spot starter and reliever on a playoff team. He brought versatility and a bulldog attitude to the mound. The Orioles smartly picked their spots with Johnson, putting him in situations where he could have success.
And he seized the opportunity, quickly gaining the admiration of his teammates.
"He is very vanilla, he's not going to throw 100 mph. He might not even throw 90 mph. But he gets guys out and he pounds the strike zone," said first baseman Chris Davis. "Personally, I love having him on our staff. Playing behind him, it's one of those things that you respect the guy because you know no matter what anybody says about him, no matter how many people count him down, he is going to produce."
Johnson doesn't command much respect nationally, despite his strong 2012. Baseball America ranked Johnson as the organization's 16th best prospect for 2013, three spots behind Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia, who has never had an at-bat in a MLB-affiliated organization.
The primary reason is because Johnson's success is hard to explain. He has four pitches that Baseball America calls "fringy to average." Yet he often throws them for strikes. And his 87-90 mph fastball comes with a deception in his delivery that is hard to pick up.
"I don't know what it is. And I don't really care. I know that I can pitch a certain way when I have that deception," Johnson said. "Some days it is better than others and I try to gauge that in each outing. There is something about it. People call it the Invisiball."
Robinson watched Johnson's fastball get outs in the Dodgers organization. In 2012, Robinson tried to figure it out from the batter's box.
"I faced him last year and I was amazed myself," Robinson, who was with the Seattle Mariners last season, said with a smile. "The way it comes out of his hand. You think he is going to throw a changeup and it's a 90 mph fastball right by you. He's only going to get better, to be honest. He wants it."
Growing up with a father who not only pitched parts of five seasons in the majors, but also spent 11 seasons in the minors and didn't make his big league debut until he was 27, has helped Johnson deal with the bumps and bruises of professional baseball.
"Very rarely do you get somebody that's really close to you that's been through exactly what you are going through. He spent all that time in the minors before finally getting called up. So anything I went through in the minors, he has been through," Johnson said. "He's been through everything, so it is nice to go to him for advice or have him just kind of say, 'Keep going. The last outing doesn't mean anything.' Little things like that."
His father has been in his ear for years to stay confident and positive, something that comes pretty natural to a guy his teammates describe as "laid back."
But he's also super competitive — and that combination of patience and drive has allowed him to bide his time while he pursues his dream.
"You have to wait your turn," Johnson said. "It's a hard thing to do sometimes, to wait. But sometimes you just need to wait for an opportunity and sometimes it works out even better that way."
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