No one within the Orioles' organization has ever questioned Jason Johnson's ability, intensity or courage. But after last night's 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Angels, it was left to Johnson to question himself.
Beaten by back-to-back home runs to the bottom of the Angels' batting order, an overthrown wild pitch against a hitter he was already destined to walk and a 3-0 fastball to one of the most prolific hitters in Camden Yards' history, Johnson spoke of poor pitch selection, poor location and a need to change direction in a season so far marked by high pitch counts and no wins.
Johnson's weren't the only sins.
True, the Angels reached him for three home runs one night after doing the same to Sidney Ponson.
But Anaheim's fourth home run, a two-run, sixth-inning shot by center fielder Garret Anderson, came against star-crossed left-handed reliever Chuck McElroy and turned a 4-3 game into a three-run deficit. The Orioles threatened the Angels' bullpen with two runs in their half of the inning but left the bases loaded in their last, best chance.
In McElroy's past five appearances, covering 6 1/3 innings, he has permitted 12 earned runs and 15 baserunners.
"It's a disappointing loss because I felt like we played well enough tonight to win a ballgame," said manager Mike Hargrove. "We just didn't pitch well enough to win."
Johnson (0-1) couldn't hold a pair of early leads, and a promising sixth-inning rally fell a run shy when two hitters stranded the go-ahead run at second base. The loss, which followed Tuesday's 7-6 walk-off win, overshadowed an offensive awakening by right fielder Albert Belle, whose three hits included his first home run in nearly a month and suggested a reversal of a sluggish April.
Belle contributed to three Orioles rallies, but he was left standing on deck as Angels closer Troy Percival retired B.J. Surhoff for the final out of the Orioles' third loss in 13 home games.
Orioles starters have surrendered 15 home runs in 84 innings pitched at Camden Yards this season. Ponson and Johnson have allowed six in 11 2/3 innings the past two nights. Ponson's problems are due to location when he allows aggression to get the best of him. Johnson blamed himself for surrendering consecutive home runs to the Angels' bottom two hitters, catcher Matt Walbeck and shortstop Benji Gil, on off-speed pitches.
With one out in the third, he fed Walbeck a high two-strike change-up, which was yanked for a home run. Walbeck had entered the game with a .291 slugging percentage. Johnson then fed Gil a curveball and Gil replied with his first homer since Aug. 17, 1997 into the left-center field bleachers.
"I threw a fastball right by Walbeck, and I was stupid enough to throw him a changeup on the next pitch," Johnson said. "If I threw him one more wild pitch, he'd be sitting on the bench."
Gil hit what Johnson considered a sound pitch. "I don't know how he hit it out," he said.
Curious pitch selection has followed several losses this season. Usually, the concern has been with ill-timed, off-speed pitches.
"I don't know if he's trying to be too fine. Sometimes he throws a lot of pitches. There's a difference between trying to be too fine or trying to be perfect," Hargrove said. "I think he tries to throw the perfect pitch, the perfect curveball, and you hang that thing. When you're trying to be fine, you try to keep the ball on the corners. There's nothing wrong with that. Jason got in trouble today when he got the ball up."
Johnson's night was complicated in the second inning when he ripped a portion of the nail from his right index finger. Because Johnson "spikes" his curveball and slider -- meaning he digs a nail into the ball when executing those pitches -- the injury became a factor.
"I just started trying to mix it up a little better, and it seemed like they knew what was coming," said Johnson. "Even on the good pitches they were hitting them down the line and stuff like that."
Johnson is often described as possessing an "electric" fastball that he loves to throw inside. Getting beat on a pair of breaking pitches stung. Hargrove declined to criticize the selection of either pitch but noted, "That's something we'll talk about internally."
After rallying for a 3-3 tie in the fifth inning on Johnson's wild pitch to Darin Erstad, the Angels finished Johnson in the sixth.
Just as they had pounded away at Tuesday night's starter, Ponson, for three home runs, they reached Johnson for No. 3 when nemesis Mo Vaughn crushed a bases-empty shot to begin the inning. Vaughn's home run was his 14th Camden Yards, tying him with Detroit Tigers outfielder Juan Gonzalez for second-most by a visiting player at Camden Yards. The pre-Camden Belle holds the lead with 15.
McElroy came on after designated hitter Tim Salmon singled. His first pitch to Anderson was hammered over the center-field fence, re-raising questions about the left-hander's security.
Asked if McElroy had reason to worry about his standing, Hargrove said bluntly, "No, he shouldn't. He shouldn't feel like his job's in jeopardy."
Belle, meanwhile, is nothing if not cyclical, which is both good and bad.
An April downer included only two home runs and 13 RBI. He suffered an out-of-sync road trip that had him find more projectiles in right field than hits against his former team in Chicago. He entered last night in a 7-for-41 (.171) funk covering 12 games.
Opponent: Anaheim Angels
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 3: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Angels' Ken Hill (2-3, 7.12) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (1-2, 3.83)