Johnson shines pitching for Suns


HAGERSTOWN -- Swathed in ice packs, a pitcher sits in the locker room at Municipal Stadium here. He has just pitched five scoreless innings, during which he gave up only three singles and no runs, struck out three and walked none. He talks of wanting to get a chance with the Orioles, feeling he has proven what he can do for them. Nothing out of the ordinary in the world of minor-league baseball.

Except the pitcher is the Orioles' Dave Johnson, who last night made his first of a scheduled two rehabilitation starts in Hagerstown. Last year, with a record of 13-9, he was the Orioles' winningest pitcher. Now, after spending six weeks on the disabled list with a severely strained groin muscle, Johnson talks of getting a chance to show the Orioles what he can do.

"I'm looking to prove that I'm healthy and for them to stick me back in there [the rotation] and give me what I've earned. And I can give them what they want -- seven innings the majority of the time," Johnson said. "So it works both ways: I'm looking for something from them, but I'm going to give them something back, too. And that's what I want to happen."

It is not the first time Johnson has had to prove himself in a situation where he seemingly already has done so.

"I went into spring training being the biggest winner and stil people were doubting whether I was going to make the club," Johnson said. "So then I have four starts and I'm in the bullpen. But I still felt that my job was as a starter on that club, and sooner or later I was going to get the chance to go back in there and be the consistent guy that they looked to every five days. And then I got hurt."

When he was placed on the DL May 19, Johnson was 1-3 with a ERA in eight appearances, four of them as a starter. Originally he had hoped to remain on the DL for only the 15-day minimum. It was not until last night, however, that he finally got to throw offa mound in a game situation.

"Everything went actually better than I planned. I really didn't fee that I was going to be that comfortable," said Johnson, who threw 50 pitches and was never in real trouble. "Everything felt great. It was like I hadn't missed a beat out there."

Last night, everything went a lot better for Johnson than it had most of this season. Against the Williamsport Bills, Johnson looked much like the pitcher who, during a stretch from June 2 to Aug. 2 last year, went 8-3 over 13 starts, and was instrumental in keeping the Orioles within striking distance of the AL East leaders until mid-August.

He later had help on that front from Ben McDonald, who won his first five starts last year after being inserted into the starting rotation on July 21. McDonald, like Johnson, has struggled this season amid injury problems.

Well, two nights ago, McDonald shined in his first Orioles start after being activated. Johnson hopes his rehab story will have a similar ending.

"I thought that what I've done, I proved that I could pitch in the big leagues," Johnson said. "They obviously feel Ben can pitch in the big leagues. So, they made room for Ben. And hopefully they feel that I deserve a chance to be up there, too, and they'll make room for me."

To make room for McDonald, the Orioles sent down struggling pitcher Jose Mesa. It is unclear just who would have to go for the Orioles to find a spot for Johnson. Such a decision, Johnson knows, probably won't come right away.

"It will be up to them whether they want me to continue and go ahead and pitch on Sunday here in Hagerstown," Johnson said. "I'm sure they feel that they want me to go out and pitch again. If nothing else, it will delay them having to make a decision up there."

But if the decision was up to him?

"I want to pitch in New York. That's the way I am. I want to pitch. I want to pitch for the Orioles," Johnson said. "But that's not my decision. I just have to try to put myself in a position to make them feel that I'm ready. Whether it's this time, or it's after next time, or the time after that, that's up to them. I don't know what they're thinking. I hope that whatever I do, they're encouraged by it, and they feel that I can give them something that somebody up there is not giving them."

If there is any pitcher whose opinion the Orioles do trust, it's Johnson, according to pitching coach Al Jackson.

"Dave is a pro. He knows what it takes for him to do what he has to do. Dave knows himself probably better than anybody else around here," Jackson said earlier this week. "He knows what it takes for him to get back to the big leagues and he's going to do those things."

Eight years in the minor leagues probably had something to do with that learning process. Last night, Johnson was able to take a look around at what he left behind.

"It was weird," Johnson said of his return to the minors. "It wa kind of a different perspective being here in this situation. I look around and I don't see a lot of people in the stands and when I was in this league, the amount of people in the stands seemed like a lot to me. Everything seemed a little larger, a little like a 'happy to be here kind of deal.' When I was in Double A, I was glad to be in Double A. I was just hoping to get a chance to go higher than that.

"Being in the big leagues, and being in Triple A for a couple of years, and coming back here, it's kind of a little dose of reality. It's neat, too, because it lets you remember where you went before, where I struggled. It's kind of interesting, it really is."

In a couple of weeks, Johnson might be saying the same thing about his return to Memorial Stadium.

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