Johnson holds out hope as Tigers problems mount Battered staff may turn to ex-Oriole


LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Detroit Tigers continue to search for pitching help, and former Oriole Dave Johnson hopes he has positioned himself in the right place at the right time for a return to the major leagues.

Stranger things have happened. The Tigers pitching staff is in disrepair. The opposition has scored seven runs or more in each of the past seven games, including yesterday's 14-1 loss to the Orioles. If ever there was a place to go in search of a roster spot, it is the Tigers' camp.

"That's why I re-signed with them this year," Johnson said. "I felt there would be an opportunity because they struggled last year. You try to put yourself in a position where it doesn't take an earthquake to get you an opportunity."

Johnson, 33, still is waiting for a real look. He signed a Triple-A contract with the Toledo Mud Hens and was assigned to minor-league camp, but he has made a couple of exhibition appearances anyway. The proximity of the Tigers' Lakeland minor-league facility makes it easy to bring a pitcher over for emergency duty.

The Tigers needed just that kind of help yesterday after starter John Doherty gave up 10 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings. Johnson came on in the eighth to strike out the first two batters he faced, but gave up a run on a triple by Doug Jennings and a bloop single by Jeff Tackett before getting out of the inning.

It wasn't a great outing, but the sum total of Johnson's two spring appearances (one earned run in 2 1/3 innings) gives him a better ERA than most of the candidates for Sparky Anderson's starting rotation.

Newcomers Mike Moore and Bill Krueger, who came over as free agents during the off-season, are doing fine, but that's where it stops.

Right-hander Bill Gullickson, who was the ace of the staff last year, has not thrown a pitch since shoulder surgery. Doherty had to be hoping that the rain would not stop after it interrupted the game in the fourth inning. His ERA rose to 19.96 and it is only the third worst on the staff. Left-hander Tom Bolton isn't much better at 11.74.

Johnson can see an opportunity there, but he'll have to make an impression every time he pitches.

"I'd be happier to be in camp, but it's right across the street and you're always over here," he said. "They know who I am. They know what I did in Baltimore. The bottom line is, just wait for a chance and be ready."

There was room to wonder if there would be any more chances after Johnson was released by the Orioles and washed out in a comeback attempt with the California Angels. But he pitched in Toledo last year and turned in an excellent performance in the Dominican winter league. In 54 innings of work, he gave up just four earned runs.

"I don't think that I've ever thrown as well as I threw in winter ball," he said. "I don't remember any time in Baltimore when I had as good command."

No doubt, the Tigers will look for some pitching help outside the organization as other clubs cut down their rosters and unload surplus arms, but Johnson thinks there is a good possibility he'll return to the major leagues in a Detroit uniform this season.

"I like my chances," he said. "The Tigers don't play in Baltimore until June. Maybe I'll see you there."

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