Steve Johnson's journey to becoming an Oriole had its twists and turns. It had its share of doubters, too, including Johnson, who didn't know whether he would ever get a chance to make a big league roster.
The 25-year-old right-hander was a four-time All-Metro selection at St. Paul's, but even as a high school pitcher, he fought the stigma that he didn't throw hard enough to have a lasting future in the game.
After Johnson spent parts of the past eight years in the minor leagues, the door of opportunity finally opened in 2012, as he made the most of a series of second-half call-ups from Triple-A Norfolk, shining as both a starter and reliever for the Orioles.
He will go into spring training with the opportunity to stick in the starting rotation. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Johnson, who was 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) with the big league team this past season, will compete for a rotation spot in spring training — a competition that will be crowded.
“I was really proud of him last year,” Showalter said. “He did it the right way. You tell me, what else does a guy got to do to get an opportunity? He came up here, he did the job. He did the job in Triple-A. His stats were as good as anybody's. I thought they were kind of better than anybody's.”
By Johnson's side the entire time was his father, Dave, a former Orioles right-hander, who faced similar obstacles to break through to the major leagues with his hometown team.
Dave Johnson never had the prospect label, but he became an immediate fan favorite here, a Baltimore native who pitched just five big league games with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1987 before getting an opportunity with the Orioles during the second half of their 1989 “Why Not?” season.
He won four of his first six decisions and capped the season with seven innings of two-hit ball in the second-to-last game of the season in Toronto with the Orioles still clinging to playoff hopes. Johnson was an emergency starter when Pete Harnisch was scratched after stepping on a rusty nail.
Steve Johnson was too young — he turned 2 that summer of 1989 — to remember much of his father's career. He has caught up through home video and did recall the crowd of family and friends that awaited his father outside the clubhouse after his first big league win, which came Aug. 8, 1989, in his first start at Memorial Stadium.
Exactly 23 years later, Steve Johnson was in the same shoes. After holding the Seattle Mariners to two runs on five hits through six innings for his first major league win in his first big league start, he walked out of the clubhouse at Camden Yards to a huge crowd of family and friends.
“I don't really remember my dad playing too much, at all really,” Steve Johnson said. “So we have video that someone made, and they had him coming out of the clubhouse after his first win, and it was the same types of things. All the family and friends were there. It just reminded me of that. I thought that was pretty cool because I remember seeing how special it was with him.
“To be able to share that day with my dad, I don't think that's ever happened before, when father and son get their first major league win with the same team on the same day.”
Said Dave Johnson: “For Steve it was even better because he made his major league debut here, he won his first game here, made his first start here. I always talk about how I could have pitched three years for the Pirates and three for Cincinnati and two for Houston, and that would have been great, but it wasn't like pitching 2 1/2 years for the Orioles.”
For Steve Johnson, it was the culmination of a long journey. He was a 13th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 out of St. Paul's. He came to the Orioles three years ago in the trade that sent George Sherrill to Los Angeles. He was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the Rule 5 draft that next offseason but was returned to the Orioles in spring training.
After advancing to Triple-A for the first time in 2011, Johnson re-signed with the Orioles as a minor league free agent. He was in big league camp that spring — his locker situated in the corner by the drink refrigerator — but exited quickly.
The Orioles added Johnson to the 40-man roster in May. The move prevented Johnson from exercising an opt-out in his contract, something he surely would have done.
By mid-August, he was a key member of the pitching staff because he could be used as a spot starter or reliever. He compiled a 1.10 ERA in eight relief outings, holding hitters to a .127 batting average.
The Orioles were impressed with Johnson's aggressiveness in the strike zone. He struggled with his slider, which was a major weapon in Triple-A, but he was able to consistently get ahead of hitters with his fastball, mixing it with a changeup and curveball.
“He's one of those guys who you tell him, ‘You can't do it,' he's going to show you he can,” Showalter said. “I like those kinds of guys. A lot of guys' stuff plays better as they go up. The thing I like about him is he's fearless. So many guys compartmentalize it. They go back to the hotel and say, ‘I wish I would have been more aggressive and trusted myself.' He trusts it. He's one of those guys who goes out there and says, ‘Here's mine. Let's see what you can do with it.' I like that. He lets it rip, and he attacks people.”
Johnson is used to that. He's often been told he couldn't. In his first start of his senior year at St. Paul's — pitching against McDonogh ace Brandon Erbe — Steve struck out 20 of 21 hitters in front of a crowd of major league scouts. The scouts were there to see Erbe, whom the Orioles drafted in the third round that year, and even after that sparkling performance, only the Dodgers continued to scout Johnson regularly.
“I've always had a chip on my shoulder,” Johnson said. “I was never big in the prospect rankings. A lot guys said I wasn't good enough or didn't have the secondary pitches or throw hard enough to get out of Rookie ball. I got out of Rookie ball and they said it wasn't good enough. I kept going. I love to prove people wrong, and that pushes me a lot.”
And now that he's seen success at the big league level, Johnson hopes to build on it.
“I know I'm not a hard thrower, I don't have some of the best off-speed stuff, but I know I've made it work,” he said. “I've gained confidence throughout pro ball and now having it work up in the majors. I have confidence in my stuff.
“I just feel like I have a lot of confidence in saying, ‘You know what, you're not seeing it well today, we'll go with it.' There was awhile a couple of years ago where that wasn't the case, and I just worked hard at being more consistent. That's kind of what my dad taught me, to have that bulldog mentality where I'm going to put it on the line and see if you can handle it. That's what I have to do.”
Johnson says he finally has a legitimate chance to make a big league roster out of spring training — and he said refining his slider will be a key.
“I'm happy for him that he's been able to enjoy the fruits of his labor, similar to like I did,” Dave Johnson said. “If he never throws another pitch, he'll still forever be ‘former Oriole Steve Johnson.' He will always have that connection. He wants to build on that. He doesn't want to be content with this year, just like I [wasn't]. I'm happy for him that he was able to have the success and be able to enjoy it.”
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