NEW YORK - More convinced by what he's seen than what he's heard, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove yesterday dropped fifth starter Jason Johnson from the rotation and assigned Sunday's start against the Philadelphia Phillies to Jose Mercedes.
Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis have waited for Johnson to exhibit a more consistent breaking pitch but have instead seen a confused pitcher. Johnson dropped to 0-7 Monday, walking five and giving up a grand slam to Tony Batista in a 6-4 loss to Toronto. Hargrove's patience reached the breaking point and a decision was reached shortly before yesterday's game against the New York Yankees to return Mercedes to the rotation.
"The numbers ... support the decision," said Hargrove, citing Johnson's chronically high pitch counts and 11 walks in his last two starts. "I think we've given Jason a fair shot at the starting rotation and it's time for something different. We certainly haven't given up on Jason Johnson. The man has as good a stuff as you'll ever see. He's just got to be more consistent with command of his stuff. Going to the bullpen gives us more of a chance to work with him on the side and use him in shorter stints."
Johnson, 26, has failed to rediscover the form that earned him five wins in his last seven starts last season. Projected as the Orioles' Opening Day No. 3 starter after Scott Erickson underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery March 3, Johnson's troubled spring training - 0-3, 6.95 ERA and 52 base runners in 22 innings - instead led to his starting the season at Triple-A Rochester. Since returning April 23, he had foundered in 12 starts, with a 6.53 ERA and 40 walks in 71 2/3 innings. No major-league pitcher has made more starts without earning a win this season.
Johnson promised a turnaround several weeks ago but has continued to labor. Blessed with a lively fastball, he has struggled with command of his breaking pitches.
The Orioles could have optioned Johnson to Rochester for a second time and promoted a starting pitcher. They opted instead to place Johnson in the bullpen because of the deceptive read he gave them last time at Triple-A.
"Last time he went to Triple-A he dominated then he came here and struggled," said Hargrove after a post-game meeting with the pitcher. "That's certainly an option down the road if this doesn't work, but we'll try this right now."
Johnson had insisted earlier this season he had no interest in bullpen duty. But Hargrove offered no choice. Johnson left Yankee Stadium shortly after yesterday's game without commenting.
Mercedes made four starts after opening the season in the rotation, going 2-1 with a 6.38 ERA. He was then shuffled to the bullpen to make room for Johnson.
After initially struggling in a long relief role and complaining about infrequent use, Mercedes has thrived since nearly being optioned to Rochester last month. The move was rescinded only because the club failed to first ask waivers on him. Mercedes has not allowed an earned run in his last four appearances covering seven innings. He has allowed one run in his last 11 2/3 innings, lowering his overall ERA to 5.40.
"Before, I wasn't getting a chance to pitch. Now I'm getting a chance to pitch and things are better," Mercedes said.
Strain sidelines DeShields
Second baseman Delino DeShields did not play in yesterday's game and will be held out again today due to a strained muscle in his right upper back, Hargrove said.
Today will mark the third consecutive game DeShields has missed. While club officials have downplayed his condition until recently, the neck discomfort and a sore thigh have cut his speed. DeShields is hitting .250 (16-for-64) over his last 17 games and .236 (35-for-148) since his average crested at .361 on May 9. DeShields has stolen a base in only five games since May 5.
"It's been bothering him for a while," said Hargrove, adding that the club is not considering placing DeShields on the disabled list.
Torre on C. Johnson
Reserves for the American League All-Star team will be announced this afternoon, and catcher Charles Johnson appears to be squarely on the fence.
Yankees manager Joe Torre is believed to be committed to his own catcher, Jorge Posada, as backup to Ivan Rodriguez. However, Johnson's .313 average, 19 home runs and 44 RBIs make him a logical choice if Torre opts for a third catcher.
Torre said yesterday that a rule allowing free substitution of the starting catcher in case of an injury to his backup works against Johnson.
"My first All-Star team, I made it as a third catcher," remembered Torre. "And I sat in the bullpen the whole game. But now that they allow you to bring that first guy back, it's probably easier to [take two catchers]. But this guy over here [Johnson] is having a pretty good year ... both my guy [Posada] and Charlie."
Around the horn
The last Yankees pitcher to go winless in 11 starts was Pascual Perez in 1991. But don't tell Orioles DH Harold Baines that David Cone is washed up. "I got him the first time," said Baines, who homered in the second inning, "but he struck me out the second time. I think he's just as tough as he ever was." ... The Yankees' Bernie Williams, the leading vote-getter among AL All-Star outfielders, extended his hitting streak to 14 games. But another one of his streaks ended. Williams' 13-game streak of scoring at least one run ended five games shy of the team and major-league mark held by Red Rolfe, who did it in 1939.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.