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J. Johnson strong-arms Twins, 7-2


Those who squinted through the fog shrouding Camden Yards last night saw two rarities: an Orioles lineup committed to right-handed hitters and a Jason Johnson trusting his ability.

The result was an impressively clean 7-2 win over the Minnesota Twins before 38,558 who also saw Jeff Conine continue his mastery over Twins starter Eric Milton with a third-inning grand slam that followed left fielder Mike Kinkade's bases-empty home run to begin a five-run rally.

The 19-23 Orioles have now won four of five but rarely have they gotten as commanding a performance as last night. Johnson (3-2) allowed two runs and five hits in 7 2/3 innings, the longest outing of his major-league career. He now ranks second on the staff in wins and may be its surprise leader in focus and confidence.

"I'm happy with what I'm doing because I'm more relaxed," said Johnson, whose 3.44 ERA leads the rotation and barely leaves him out of the league's top 10. "I want to keep us in games. If I go out there and allow six earned runs in six innings and our hitters get six runs, that's all I can do."

Said manager Mike Hargrove: "I think last year Jason pitched to miss bats and consequently he was off the plate and averaged 100 pitches per five innings. Jason has the kind of stuff that he doesn't have to pitch that way. We spent all of last year trying to convince him of that, and all this winter and all of spring training. For whatever reason, he and [pitching coach] Mark Wiley have clicked."

The first-place Twins (28-12) have constructed their best start in franchise history due largely to 15 come-from-behind wins and six in their final at-bat. Their bullpen had stranded 32 of 34 inherited runners. Even before last night's loss, the Twins were 9-6 against the American League East despite hitting only .217 and being outscored 47-46.

The Orioles never allowed the Twins a chance to win late as Johnson extended a run of solid starts to four and Buddy Groom provided 1 1/3 innings of shutout relief.

Paired against the Maryland alum Milton (5-3), Johnson again fared well in a high-visibility matchup. Two starts ago, he pitched Mike Mussina to a draw. In New York last Saturday, Johnson was hurt by two unearned runs and a resulting high pitch count in another no-decision at Yankee Stadium.

Milton entered last night riding a string of 10 consecutive quality starts and was sporting a 2.11 May ERA that included a May 8 shutout of the Yankees.

Among the league's most precise starters, Milton lacked his typcial control last night. His undoing came during a span of eight hitters in which he walked three, hit a batter and surrendered two home runs. In four career starts against the Orioles, Milton is now 0-3 with a 9.15 ERA.

Kinkade, starting in left field as part of Hargrove's nouveau lineup against left-handed pitching, gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead with a home run to lead off the third.

Milton quickly compounded the mistake after receiving a gift out on Brook Fordyce's unsuccessful steal attempt on a botched hit-and-run. Jerry Hairston walked, Mike Bordick was hit by a pitch, and Chris Richard took a pitch to his right biceps, loading the bases for Conine, who began the night a career 4-for-4 with a home run against Milton.

Down 1-2 after taking a disputed outside strike, Conine waited for Milton to duplicate the breaking pitch that got him a second-inning strikeout. When the pitch hung over the middle of the plate, Conine drove it into the second row of left-field bleachers for his second grand slam this year (fifth of his career) and fifth home run of the season. Conine also became the first Oriole to reach 20 RBIs. Sixteen of Conine's 21 RBIs have come on his home runs.

"I think I've been swinging the bat well every time I've faced him," said Conine. "It's kind of weird that way, doing well against really good pitchers and struggling against pitchers you feel should do well against."

Dormant offensively for much of the season, the Orioles have homered eight times in their past eight games compared to 20 homers in their first 34 games. In the past nine games, the Orioles have averaged seven runs and reached double digits twice.

Last season, Johnson suffered a 1-10 beating that included an 0-8 start and two trips to Rochester. His ability was never questioned, but problems diagnosed as focus and trust in himself were more difficult to address. Part of his mental makeover last winter was subordinating his own record to keeping his team in games. What might seem a subtle adjustment is significant to a pitcher who would not only would obsess over every start, but every pitch and every lead he received. The tendency exposed him to meltdowns, interminable pauses between pitches and a loss of confidence from his manager.

Johnson arrived at spring training three months ago sporting a new look - blond highlights and a goatee - and a confidence enhanced by off-season workouts and focusing techniques.

"I don't know which was bigger," he said. "This year, no matter what, if I give up a hit, I shake it off and say, 'Get the next guy,' instead of hollering at myself."

The Orioles had scored only 29 runs in Johnson's previous eight starts. Both of his wins had come against hapless Tampa Bay, leaving him without a victory over a competent franchise since September 1999. His last start against the Twins - a win on Sept. 8, 1999 - was cut to five innings by a ruptured blister.

Not until Johnson led 7-0 did the Twins seriously threaten. Jacque Jones turned on a two-out fastball for a bases-empty home run onto the right-field flag court in the fifth inning. In the sixth, another two-out hit - a single by Corey Koskie - scored Luis Rivas, who had doubled.

Johnson hit two batters but walked no one. He struck out only two, more an indication of Johnson's commitment to pitch efficiency than an indictment of his fastball.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Twins' Joe Mays (5-2, 2.30) vs. Orioles' Jose Mercedes (0-6, 6.54)

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