BOSTON -- The questions continue to change for Orioles left-hander Doug Johns.
During spring training, onlookers wondered who Johns was. A month ago, they wondered why he couldn't fall asleep. Two weeks ago, manager Ray Miller was asking himself whether Johns should be in the starting rotation.
But after last night's game at Fenway Park, the question changes once more.
Can Doug Johns, mystery man, start Sunday against the Atlanta Braves on three days' rest?
Just joking. But everything else about the Orioles' only healthy left-handed starter must now be taken seriously. Thrown in against the Boston Red Sox last night, Johns (2-1) responded with 7 1/3 scoreless innings in what ended as a 3-0 Orioles win before 31,355.
The Orioles suddenly find themselves on a three-game winning streak and an 8-3 run in which Johns has been a major player.
"Without Jimmy Key, we don't have a left-hander in the rotation. With what he has done, he has earned the right to continue to start," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said of Johns. "The bullpen has been depleted. We've pitched him under circumstances when he's known he has to pitch deep into games. And he's responded under pressure. I couldn't be more proud of him. He gets better every time he goes out there."
Johns was asked to stop a five-game losing streak and departed with a 5-1 lead against the New York Yankees on May 19. He was asked to heal a bullpen and answered with seven innings against the Oakland Athletics, a 2-1 win on May 24 in which he did not get a decision. Last Friday against the Texas Rangers, he beat a team hitting better than .340 against left-handers.
"We'd be buried without him," Miller said.
Johns handed off to Arthur Rhodes with one out in the eighth inning last night. Rhodes, examined in Baltimore earlier in the day after being hit by Ken Griffey's line drive Tuesday, finished the combined five-hitter for his second save.
It was the first shutout suffered by the Red Sox this season and their first at home since May 5, 1997. Entering the game, Boston was 10-1 at home and 16-3 overall against left-handed starters.
The win continued a remarkable turnaround for Johns, a pitcher who last month found sleep impossible and remains under a doctor's supervision.
He has allowed four earned runs in the 24 2/3 innings (1.46 ERA) covering his last four starts, allowing only five walks. With Jimmy Key out with to an inflamed rotator cuff, Johns represents the only semblance of balance in an otherwise right-handed rotation.
He would fail to get through the eighth inning last night, but managed his longest outing since Aug. 3, 1996.
Asked about his status within the rotation, Johns retreats.
"I try not to think that far ahead," he said. "I try to think about what's going on now instead of looking ahead."
Johns' season continues as one of extremes. He landed on the disabled list retroactive to May 3 because of insomnia. The club placed him in its employee assistance program, and he turned to a local psychologist for help. Gradually he found sleep in increments of three, then four hours. Now he finds it in doses of six hours.
Johns represents a project to Flanagan. He is a 30-year-old nomad who has pitched for the Athletics and the Parma entry of the Italian professional leagues.
The University of Virginia alum hesitated last night when someone wondered where he was last June 3. Answer: either in Italy or attending the College World Series while with Triple-A Omaha. He wasn't sure. A more relevant question might be: How long can he help hold together a frayed starting rotation?
"I liked him from the first day of spring training. His ball moved more than I thought. He threw a little harder than I thought. I knew he could throw strikes. He was a low-pitch-count guy," Flanagan said.
He's still low-visibility, but is increasingly high-impact.
"I've given him some things a left-handed pitcher should know," Flanagan said. "I just thought his pickoff move could get better, and it has. I knew if I could help him get left-handed hitters out, he's already got a plan for righties. The one thing he was a little bit weak on, and he's gotten better, is getting left-handers out."
For five innings Johns got almost everybody out, allowing only a walk. He took a no-hitter into the sixth before Damon Buford led off with a clean single to left field. The Red Sox never pushed a runner to third base.
The night also began poorly for the Red Sox. Third baseman John Valentin and manager Jimy Williams were ejected in the fourth inning after the player argued strike calls with plate umpire Tim Welke.
The Orioles reached Red Sox left-hander Derek Lowe (0-5) for the lead in the fourth inning. Making his fifth straight start, right fielder Eric Davis singled and was replaced by Harold Baines on a fielder's choice. Baines motored to third on Rafael Palmeiro's single. Roberto Alomar extended a run of brilliant offense with a sacrifice fly into the left-field corner.
Checked on three singles through five innings, the Orioles padded their lead with a two-run sixth. With one out, Brady Anderson walked, and Davis drove him in with a double to the left-center-field wall. Palmeiro pushed the lead to 3-0 with a two-out single that gave him nine hits in his last 14 at-bats.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (0-2, 6.92) vs. Red Sox's Bret Saberhagen (6-3, 5.73)
Last night's shutout of the Red Sox was the Orioles' fifth of the season. A breakdown:
Date Score ..... Pitcher(s) IP ... H
4/11 at Det./ .. Mussina ... 8 ... 2
.... 2-0 ....... Benitez ... 1 ... 0
Min./ ...... Mussina ... 7 2/3 .. 2
2-0 ........ Rhodes .... 1 1/3 .. 1
at T.B./ ... Mussina ... 9 ... 5
5/11 at Min./ .. Erickson .. 9 ... 5
6/3 at Bos./ ... Johns ..... 7 1/3 .. 4
... 3-0 ........ Rhodes .... 1 2/3 .. 1
Pub Date: 6/04/98