PHILADELPHIA - The Orioles yesterday optioned pitcher Jason Johnson to Triple-A Rochester after watching their former fifth starter crumble during a Thursday relief appearance against the New York Yankees.
The move corresponded with the recall of Gabe Molina for the fifth time this season. Manager Mike Hargrove said after last night's 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies that there is no time frame attached to Johnson's demotion, only a hoped-for reversal to his 0-8 season.
"We think a lot of Jason Johnson and think a lot of his stuff. We think he can still be a good major-league pitcher," said Hargrove. "But right now, it's not working."
Johnson suffered his second option of the season after compiling a 6.96 ERA and 41 walks in 73 2/3 innings. Rarely has he resembled the pitcher who won five of his last seven starts last season and his confidence suffered a corresponding hit that too often left him pitching defensively.
Johnson left Veterans Stadium without comment.
Hargrove last night called Monday's move to place Johnson in the bullpen rather than option him "a 50-50 decision." However, the club had earlier cited Johnson's April dominance of the International League as reason enough not to send him back for another tour.
Johnson last started July 3 in a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. Hargrove then relegated him to long relief, a move Johnson publicly embraced, perhaps because he had feared a demotion.
On Thursday, Johnson was entrusted with a 7-4 lead in the second inning at Yankee Stadium before surrendering back-to-back home runs on his first six pitches.
The Yankees took an 8-7 lead and eventually won, 13-9, leaving Johnson with his eighth consecutive loss to begin the season, tying a franchise mark set by Mike Boddicker in 1988.
"I don't think he needs to change his stuff. There are things he needs to do with his mechanics to enable himself to find his arm slot more consistently," said Hargrove. "Jason needs to pitch ahead of hitters and all that goes hand in hand."
Johnson's curveball is his best weapon because of the difficulty hitters have picking up its spin. However, he has rarely showed command of the pitch this season.
Hargrove said the decision was made after "three or four" conversations with vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. Molina, previously used in seventh- and eighth-inning situations, this time will be allowed to stretch out in long relief, according to Hargrove.
In, out of lineup
Hargrove gained one player last night, lost one and continued to wait on another.
Second baseman Delino DeShields made his first start since Sunday at Camden Yards, no longer racked with pain from a strained muscle in his upper back that affected his neck and right shoulder.
He flied out as a pinch hitter to end Thursday's game in New York, making him 16-for-65 (.246) over his previous 17 games. After going 1-for-4 last night, he has batted .233 in 43 games since his average climbed to a season-high .361 on May 9.
Even with DeShields, the right side of the infield wasn't at full strength. First baseman Will Clark didn't start because of a deep bruise to his right triceps.
Yankees starter Ed Yarnall hit Clark with a pitch in the first inning of Thursday's game. Clark continued to play, walking twice in four other plate appearances, but showed up yesterday with a purplish discoloration on his arm.
"It's ugly," Hargrove said.
Clark, whose nine-game hitting streak ended on Sunday, had ice wrapped around his arm while sitting at his locker. He was available if needed.
"It's still sore today," Hargrove said. "He toughed it out yesterday but it's restricting his movement. And DeShields is healthy enough to put him back in the lineup."
DeShields' recovery made it easier for Hargrove to keep Clark on the bench at the start of the game. He moved Jeff Conine from third to first, with Mark Lewis going from second to third.
"I was limited in the moves we could make in New York," Hargrove said.
That's because third baseman Ryan Minor remains out with a pulled muscle in his left rib cage. He hasn't played since being scratched from Saturday's lineup.
Minor has hit off a tee the past two days, but said he's still "a little sore."
"I was told it takes forever to heal and I didn't believe it," he said. "I had been feeling like [the discomfort] was moving around. Now, it's just in one spot, which is good. It's not my whole side."
Hairston comes off DL
Second baseman Jerry Hairston, who began the season as one of the Orioles' utility infielders, has been activated from the disabled list and resumed playing for Triple-A Rochester. He went 0-for-4 in his first game on Thursday.
Hairston completed a two-game assignment at Single-A Frederick, going 3-for-8 with two doubles and an RBI. He fills the roster opening at Rochester created when Howie Clark went on the disabled list.
It's been almost seven weeks since Hairston had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. Dr. Walter Lowe, team physician for the NBA's Houston Rockets, performed the exploratory procedure and found no tears or instability in the shoulder.
Lewis, who started four straight games at second base before DeShields returned, has been the club's primary utility infielder since Jesus Garcia was optioned to Rochester. In the past, the Orioles have resisted using Hairston in that role because they prefer him playing every day - a scenario that's complicated by DeShields.
Hairston was batting .270 (30-for-111) with seven doubles, two homers and 13 RBIs before last night.
Mercedes changes pace
It took about two months before pitcher Jose Mercedes figured out, with help from bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, how to straighten out his mechanics. By slowing his delivery - pausing at one point as if having second thoughts about releasing the ball - better results came quickly.
Mercedes, who will start tonight in Philadelphia, began rushing his delivery while pitching in relief.
Around the horn
Hargrove has his rotation set for after the All-Star break, but he cautioned that it's still tentative. For now, he intends to start Mike Mussina on Thursday, followed by Sidney Ponson, Pat Rapp, Scott Erickson and Mercedes.