On the days he pitches, Jason Johnson performs a ritual of silence. He will deliberately walk the clubhouse not looking for anything in particular, whether a conversation or a destination. Often the tour brings him back to his locker, where he can stare inside in search of focus, answers or both.
Johnson carries much inside himself, not the least of which is enormous potential. But last night's start against the Anaheim Angels invited more frustration as its companion.
Needing a win badly, Johnson (0-5) instead absorbed the kind of beating that has left him bothered alternately by his performance, his support and his fluctuating role.
Breaking a three-game losing streak, the Angels used home runs by Troy Glaus and Garret Anderson to account for five of their seven runs off Johnson in what ended as their 8-3 win before 45,758 at Camden Yards. The decision ended the Orioles' six-game winning streak and deprived them of a chance to pull within five games of the American League East lead. The outcome also made a footnote of Albert Belle's sixth home run in four games.
"I've pitched my butt off out there every time on the mound," Johnson said. "One of these days it's going to come around and we're going to get the hitting and the pitching together. When that happens, I know I can reel off five or six in a row, easy, just like I did last year."
The same pitcher who won five of his last seven starts in 1999 remains winless in 10 starts since Sept. 26. At times, Johnson has fought an impulse to overthrow. At others, he has disagreed with manager Mike Hargrove's decision to skip his turn twice in the past month.
"I don't know if it's the layoff. I don't think it bothered him, but maybe he did. He's in a spell right now where he makes one bad pitch and it hurts him," Hargrove said.
Continuing a personal theme, Johnson had little offense to work with. The Orioles were shut out until the sixth inning and once again waited to be jump-started by Belle. By then, it was too late for their struggling starting pitcher.
Belle added an RBI single to pull the Orioles within 7-2 in the seventh inning and give him the team's last 10 RBIs and 22 for the 8-game-old homestand. It was also Belle's 17th RBI of the week, tying the franchise record set by Mike Young in 1985. (Belle actually had 19 RBIs from last Saturday through Friday, but records are kept only for calendar weeks.) Belle's 22 RBIs and eight home runs during the homestand have made him the team leader in both categories.
The Orioles, meanwhile, await Johnson's transformation.
Johnson has not found solid footing since spring training. Shocked by an option to Triple-A Rochester, he returned April 21 but has yet to resemble the talent that finished last season.
Asked beforehand if last night's start held greater significance for Johnson, Hargrove said it did not.
"He's a young guy. He's got to settle in. The work I've been able to give him as a starter has been inconsistent this year because we've had to skip him. That doesn't mean there's a problem with his work habits or his work ethic," Hargrove said. "Does it mean if I could go back I wouldn't skip him? No. That's part of the game.
"I wish it wasn't so, but that's the reality of the game and of the schedule. But every time Jason takes the mound I fully expect him to win."
Johnson walked only one last night but his crimes occurred in the strike zone. Too often he left pitches up. Two home runs crushed him.
"Sometimes he tries to overpower the ball instead of pitching," said pitching coach Sammy Ellis. "Sometimes he tries to throw as nasty a curveball as he can throw, as hard a fastball as he can throw, instead of thinking of location, which is what major-league pitching is all about."
Across the diamond could be found a lesson in doing more with less. Veteran Angels starting pitcher Tim Belcher (1-0) was making his first appearance of the season more than seven months after undergoing surgery to repair a right flexor muscle. He began with little control.
Given four walks in the first two innings, the Orioles allowed Belcher to escape a first-inning jam on Belle's double play. In the second, the Orioles loaded the bases on two walks and Will Clark's double only to watch Belcher strike out Greg Myers and Brady Anderson to end the threat. The strikeout of Anderson was the 1,500th of Belcher's career.
Belcher needed 58 pitches to get through the first two innings. However, the Orioles allowed him to slide by going 1-for-13 against him with runners on base.
"All night long we were one hit away from taking the lead in the game or getting back in the game," Hargrove said.
Belcher hadn't won since Sept. 3 but raised his career record to 5-0 with a 2.14 ERA at Camden Yards. Belle administered the only damage to him with a 411-foot leadoff home run in the sixth inning, making him the first Oriole since Rafael Palmeiro in 1998 to homer in four straight games.
Hargrove allowed Johnson to press on despite a 6-0 deficit, never activating his bullpen in the first three innings. Johnson eventually left after surrendering seven runs in seven innings.
A two-out rally in the seventh against relievers Mike Holtz and Al Levine gave the Orioles their only real chance to re-enter the game. After Belle's RBI single, B. J. Surhoff, who earlier had extended his hit streak to 11 games, punched an opposite-field single to score Delino DeShields. A walk of Cal Ripken brought up Clark as the tying run, but the first baseman grounded out on the first pitch.
"We got no run support for [Johnson]. We had chances," Hargrove said. "That's as much a reason why we got beat as anything else."
Once projected as the No. 3 starter after Scott Erickson underwent arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips this spring, Johnson has pitched well enough to win several games but still searches for his first victory. The Orioles have scored more than five runs in one of Johnson's nine starts. Four quality starts have brought him a loss and three no-decisions.
Those sub-par performances have sometimes cost him seemingly certain wins. During a June 8 start against the New York Mets, Johnson held leads of 4-0 and 6-3 but couldn't last.
"It's been mentally tough. To not know what's going to happen next doesn't help me. But right now I'm just glad to be here. I just want to get a chance to pitch and help the team," he said.
Last night's start was Johnson's first since the New York meltdown as last Monday's off day prompted Hargrove to skip Johnson's start to keep the remainder of the rotation on regular rest. Johnson was given temporary bullpen duty then brought into a bases-loaded jam Wednesday against Texas.
Johnson then returned to his regular routine but admittedly remained unsure whether the temporary assignment might be a subtle signal of the club's future plans for him. "I'm not a reliever. I don't have the mind-set," he said earlier in the week. "I don't even want them thinking that."
Opponent: Anaheim Angels
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Angels' Seth Etherton (1-1, 5.06) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (3-3, 6.19)
The Orioles' Albert Belle has six home runs (two grand slams) and 16 RBIs in the past four games. A look:
6/14 .....Tex. ............2-4............1......... 4
6/15 .....Tex. ............2-4 ...........2......... 6
6/16 .....Ana. ............2-3 ...........2..........4
6/17 .....Ana. ............2-5 ...........1 .........2