Refocused J. Johnson gets O's reward; returns; 3 Red Wings starts earn pitcher a date against A's; Erickson will join Keys


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jason Johnson found his way back to the Orioles yesterday, heartened by three strong performances at Triple-A Rochester and admittedly wiser for the experience.

In a season where nothing has come easily, Johnson's flight through Chicago was canceled, forcing him to make alternative plans through Pittsburgh. He arrived around noon local time yesterday still uncertain about when he would start.

Mike Hargrove quickly clarified the issue, saying Johnson will start tomorrow against A's rookie left-hander Mark Mulder (1-0, 6.00).

"Jason took his demotion and turned it into something positive, I think," said Hargrove. "I'm sure if you talked to him he would tell you he was unhappy still. I don't blame him. I would be, too. But he turned it into a positive experience and there's no reason for him to look over his shoulder."

Johnson's stance appeared to have softened since his demotion. Johnson complained at the time of his option that Hargrove had failed to put him on notice that his role as No. 3 starter was in jeopardy. Instead of tinkering with his assortment, Johnson said he would have been more conscious of results.

"It shook me up and made me throw a lot better than I was in spring training," said Johnson, who won five of his last seven starts in 1999. "I got back to where I was at the end of last year and it worked out pretty well."

Hargrove emphasized that Johnson, 1-0 with an 0.90 ERA in three Triple-A starts, needn't be concerned about his status. However, it would appear that a certain amount of repair must occur in Johnson's relationships with his manager and pitching coach Sammy Ellis.

"I wasn't mad at anybody in particular but I was mad at every hitter I faced," said Johnson, who made critical remarks about the Orioles to a Rochester newspaper. "I said that in spring training, but I guess I didn't live up to it."

Johnson's complete-game shutout last Tuesday was his first since with Augusta, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Single-A affiliate, in 1996.

Frederick next for Erickson

Another successful four-inning side session yesterday means all that stands between Scott Erickson and his possible return to the active roster is next Tuesday's rehab start for the Single-A Frederick Keys. Erickson, who underwent March 3 arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips, exited yesterday's bullpen complaining about "funky" mechanics but was generally pleased about the process.

"It could have gone better. I could have been back after one day," Erickson wisecracked when asked if his rehab could have proceeded more smoothly.

The Orioles have refrained from setting a date for Erickson's return but next Tuesday's outing is projected as a warm-up for his being inserted in the rotation for an April 30 start against Texas.

"So far, so good," added Erickson, who was allowed significant input in managing the pace of his return. "But if I go out there and give it up I'm not going to try and rush back. I'm not going to embarrass myself."

Morales waits on elbow

Until Willie Morales tries swinging a bat, he has no way of fully knowing how much improvement has come to his hyperextended left elbow. And he's not ready to find out.

Morales, who began the season as the Orioles' backup catcher, went on the 15-day disabled list on Monday, one day after catching all nine innings of Sidney Ponson's first career shutout. Because it's his left elbow, the injury doesn't affect his work behind the plate. But he was racked with pain for about two weeks before the club put him on the DL to make room for Greg Myers, who had been sidelined by a strained left hamstring.

"I was trying to get through it," said Morales, who collected his first two major-league hits in his first start. "I was taking batting practice and I guess there was a little hyperextension. I kind of remember one swing in particular, but I didn't think at the time that it was a big deal."

Morales remains with the club, receiving treatment and waiting until the time comes when he'll grab a bat and hope for the best. Once healthy, he'll report to Triple-A Rochester.

"I've been real fortunate my whole career that I've never really had to miss games," he said. "This is a new experience for me."

Shoulder shelves Riley

Orioles pitching prospect Matt Riley, who had been a long shot to make the rotation out of spring training, said a fastball that once reached 95 mph is stalling at 89.

Riley was placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a strained left rotator cuff after two troubled starts at Triple-A Rochester. He initially feared a torn labrum, which would have sidelined him for the year, but a magnetic resonance imaging was negative. Riley will miss at least two weeks.

"It's as if I try to release [the ball] and someone is saying, 'No, don't release it,' " he told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Riley is 0-2 with a 14.14 ERA in seven innings. He's allowed 15 hits and three homers.

His first start came in Rochester's twice-delayed home opener on April 10, a game played in 35-degree weather with a 12-degree wind chill, before about 500 fans at Frontier Field. Riley, a California native, said he's never pitched in temperatures that cold.

Asked if the frigid conditions might have led to his shoulder problem, Riley said, "It didn't help."

Maduro just floating

Two days after Calvin Maduro pitched a perfect ninth inning in the Orioles' 8-4 win over Tampa Bay, Hargrove classified his role as "a floater" for the immediate future.

"Eventually I'd like for him to settle in and do what he did the other day -- pitch one or two innings and get us to our closer. But right now he gives us some depth in the long role," Hargrove said.

Maduro represents a potentially valuable commodity in long relief. Tim Worrell currently represents the only other alternative. Hargrove will have a challenging decision awaiting him on the roster move to create space for Erickson should he be ready for an April 30 start.

Maduro, who labored to a 10.00 ERA in two starts, had made only four major-league relief appearances before Wednesday's outing. "The biggest adjustment is getting ready," said Maduro, who received enough notice against the Devil Rays to throw 25-30 warm-up pitches. "It's a different routine, but it's just a matter of getting used to it."

If he was surprised by his move to the bullpen, Maduro wasn't letting on.

"I can understand," he said. "If I had pitched good, maybe I would have wondered what was happening. But I can't sit around thinking about what's best for me. It's what's best for the team."

Around the horn

Myers is expected to make his debut with the Orioles today. Mike Bordick's career-high 14-game hitting streak ended Wednesday. Kansas City infielder Carlos Febles extended his run to 14 games on Thursday. Bordick's 20 RBIs left him in a three-way tie for the major-league lead with Oakland's Jason Giambi and St. Louis third baseman Fernando Tatis going into yesterday's games.

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