Orioles pitcher Jason Johnson stood at his locker after a June 17 loss to Anaheim, angered by the seven runs he had allowed in seven innings. He was irritated that the start had come three nights after pitching out of the bullpen, which he despises, but convinced that manager Mike Hargrove had every reason to remain confident in him because, Johnson vowed, he soon would reel off five or six wins in a row.
He stood at the same locker yesterday, still waiting for that streak to begin, and still expecting his first win to come from the rotation. What's not known is if he'll get that opportunity.
Johnson lost his seventh decision yesterday, 6-4, to the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards, denying the Orioles a four-game sweep and the chance to get within 6 1/2 games of first place. He threw 69 pitches in three innings, which is how long it took for the Blue Jays to construct a lead that didn't crumble.
He was gone after the fifth, with a grand slam by Tony Batista and a bases-empty shot by Carlos Delgado the harshest blows. Toronto managed only two other hits off him, a run-scoring single by Delgado in the first and a single by Homer Bush in the third, but Johnson walked five and threw 92 pitches.
Johnson didn't back off his earlier prediction. "I know I can do it," he said. "I've just got to stay away from the big inning. I gave up four runs in the third inning today. If I don't give up that grand slam and had gotten the changeup down in the zone where it should have been, we'd have won that game. It's a simple thing like that that I have to correct in order for me to start winning."
He remains a tease of sorts, with stuff good enough to win consistently in the majors, but unable to harness it. This was the fourth time Johnson has given up at least six earned runs among his 12 starts. He allowed five earned runs in three other appearances.
Quality and control come in small waves; not enough to keep his head above water.
"Jason's 0-7 now. It's disappointing, but it's not due to a lack of effort," Hargrove said. "He goes out there and gives it everything he's got. It just hasn't worked for him so far. We'll try to find a way for it to work for him."
Johnson's standing in the rotation became more clouded yesterday by Jose Mercedes, who threw four scoreless innings in his longest relief appearance this season. He allowed only two hits, both doubles, and has given up only one earned run in his last 11 2/3 innings.
Mercedes opened the season as the fifth starter and went 2-1 with a 6.38 ERA in four April outings. He almost was sent down to Triple-A Rochester when Calvin Maduro came off the disabled list two weeks ago, but the club chose Gabe Molina.
"Mercedes threw the ball well. He kept them off the board and gave us a chance to win," Hargrove said. "He's throwing strikes, keeping the ball down and using all his pitches. He's throwing very intelligently."
Hargrove wouldn't comment on the possibility of Mercedes being let back into the rotation, or whether he would continue to pitch Johnson every fifth day.
"It's tough to see a guy with that kind of stuff struggle," said catcher Charles Johnson, who hit his 19th homer. "He's got an explosive fastball and a good curveball and changeup. That's not the way I know he can pitch. I believe with all my heart, and so does everyone in this clubhouse, that Jason can get it done."
His fifth walk came only 13 batters into the game and loaded the bases in the third. Brad Fullmer flied to shallow right, leaving Johnson with an opening to escape, but Batista hammered the first pitch he saw over the left field fence.
Johnson stood with his hands on his hips as Batista rounded the bases - the sixth time the Orioles have surrendered a grand slam this season. Delgado connected with two outs in the fifth to increase the Blue Jays' lead to 6-2, an inning after Will Clark was thrown out at the plate on a double by rookie Luis Matos.
Asked how he avoids becoming frustrated or pressing too much, Johnson said, "It's hard. I don't know what to do right now. I know I'm a lot better than the way I've been pitching. I have to turn it around."
"I had good stuff today. I get behind in the count and then I try to make the perfect pitch, and instead I walk the guy. That's something I'm going to work on my next start."
The Orioles (35-45) wasted 11 hits in losing for only the second time in seven games and falling 8 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. They also wasted the first two major-league hits for Matos, 21, who started in right field. He covered a lot of ground and also threw out a runner at third.
Charles Johnson homered off reliever John Frascatore in the eighth inning, his fifth in his last six starts, to reduce Toronto's lead to 6-4. Lance Painter retired Clark, and closer Billy Koch got the last four outs for his 18th save.
"We played well enough to win," Hargrove said. "We just didn't pitch well enough, and those things happen. You get behind hitters, especially the kind of hitters the Blue Jays have, and they're going to hurt you."
The Orioles scored once in the second inning off former teammate David Wells, whose waistline, shaven head and thick goatee make him look more like Orson Welles than the majors' first 14-game winner. Charles Johnson doubled to right and scored on a two-out single by Lewis.
Wells assisted the Orioles in the third when he balked in a run. B. J. Surhoff reached on a three-base error by Mondesi, who lost sight of the ball on the warning track in right and went into a protective couch as it nicked his glove. Surhoff scored when Wells raised his arms and hit the bill of his cap, interrupting his delivery. Plate umpire Rocky Roe immediately signaled a balk, and Wells turned and kicked the rosin bag.
The Orioles added a run in the sixth when Jeff Conine walked and Johnson singled before Clark - whose homer streak ended at three games - grounded into a double play.
This wasn't one of Wells' sharpest outings, but he improved to 9-0 on the road. The Orioles put at least one runner on base in every inning, and Wells (14-2) was removed after the sixth. He allowed nine hits and struck out three.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Yankee Stadium, New York
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Scott Erickson (3-6, 7.77) vs. Yankees' David Cone (1-6, 6.40)