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Johnson, 'pen step up, hold down Twins

Jason Johnson made a rare admission last night for a starting pitcher in the late innings of a close ballgame. He told Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley he was tired.

Trailing by two runs in the seventh inning, the Minnesota Twins were threatening to erase a solid night's work by Johnson with a single rally, and instead of dismissing Wiley with a determined stare, the veteran right-hander acknowledged that he needed help.

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That's been a tall order for the Orioles this year, considering how much their bullpen has struggled, but Johnson got the support he needed and moved closer to his personal goal of 16 victories.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove used four relievers to get the final nine outs, surviving some anxious moments, as they held on for a 3-2 victory before 26,031 at Camden Yards.

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"It got a little scary at the end," Hargrove said, "But I guess it wouldn't be worth it if that wasn't the case."

The Orioles scored two runs in the third inning against Twins starter Kenny Rogers (8-6) and held on to improve to 12-7 since the All-Star break and further diminish the Twins' hopes of defending their American League Central title.

Johnson (9-5) realizes the season's final two months will be a proving ground for him. He's auditioning for a spot in next year's starting rotation, and the Orioles just traded Sidney Ponson for two young starting pitchers with excellent upside: Kurt Ainsworth and Damian Moss.

"I made it a goal with my wife to get 16 wins," Johnson said. "She still tells me all the time, 'I know you're going to get it.' So I'm going to go for that and let everything else fall into place. I'd love to stay here. We'll see what happens."

Johnson entered the pivotal seventh inning with a 3-1 lead and a relatively low pitch count of 89. He had allowed just four hits, but he knew he was in trouble.

"I was a little bit tired going out there," he said. "But I said, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to get through the inning.' I realized after a couple pitches, I was a little lackadaisical."

A.J. Pierzynski lined a single to center, starting Minnesota's rally, and then Johnson fell behind in the count to rookie Michael Restovich, 2-0.

Wiley went to the mound to ask a somewhat rhetorical question.

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"He asked me how I felt," Johnson said, "and I wasn't going to lie to him."

Wiley went back to the dugout and told Hargrove, who decided Restovich would be Johnson's last hitter.

"That's a tough place [for Johnson] to make that announcement," Hargrove said. "I thought about taking him out in the middle of the at-bat, but I've never done that. I've seen other managers do it, but it's a tough thing to do for me."

Johnson came back in the count against Restovich but then walked him with a 3-2 pitch.

Hargrove muttered to himself as he walked to the mound to pull Johnson from the game. He motioned for right-hander Hector Carrasco and patted Johnson once on the back.

The crowd gave Johnson a warm ovation, but he was shaking his head as he walked into the dugout.

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Carrasco, a former Twin who has rescued his career with the Orioles, limited the damage to one run. Cristian Guzman moved the runners to second and third with a sacrifice bunt, and Shannon Stewart made it 3-2 with a grounder to second base, scoring Pierzynski.

With Restovich on third, Luis Rivas popped the first pitch he saw from Carrasco to shortstop, and the Orioles heaved a sigh of relief.

"Hector came in and bailed me out," Johnson said.

B.J. Ryan walked Doug Mientkiewicz to start the eighth inning and then retired Corey Koskie and Torii Hunter. With pinch hitter Matthew LeCroy coming to the plate, Hargrove countered with right-hander Kerry Ligtenberg, and LeCroy flied out to center, leaving the Orioles three outs from victory.

Hargrove turned to closer Jorge Julio, who has converted eight of nine save opportunities since the All-Star break and has 26 saves overall.

The tension mounted again when Restovich lined a one-out single, but the Orioles came back with a clutch defensive play. Todd Sears hit a smash that bounced off first baseman Jeff Conine's glove, but second baseman Brian Roberts picked it up and threw to Julio covering first base for the second out.

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In Monday's 3-2 loss, Roberts went 0-for-5 and made an error that led to two Twins runs. This time, he saved the Orioles with a heads-up play. Center fielder Luis Matos, who paced the offense with two RBIs, made a running catch on a flare from Stewart to end the game.

"It was nice to be able to be there, especially after [Monday] night," Roberts said. "It was nice to pick up Niner, after all the times he picks us up."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

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TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Twins' Kyle Lohse (7-9, 5.15) vs. Orioles' Pat Hentgen (4-5, 4.60)


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