Steve Johnson makes the most of spot start with 5 scoreless innings

The Baltimore Sun

Rookie Steve Johnson hadn't started a game in almost a month when he took the mound in the first game of Monday's doubleheader.

He didn't really care about the gap in starts. He's a local kid pitching in Baltimore's first pennant race in 15 years — really, that's plenty for him right now.

"This is what you look for, pitching in a playoff race," said Johnson, the St. Paul's graduate and son of former Oriole Dave Johnson. "Just wanting my team to win, pitch in a big game, try to get them out. … This is a lot of fun."

Johnson (4-0) pitched five shutout innings in the Orioles' 4-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing just three hits and three walks while striking out six. He has won all three of his starts, compiling a 2.12 ERA and a .200 batting average in 17 innings as a starter.

He also has a 1.10 ERA in eight relief appearances; his last coming Tuesday. Those are pretty good numbers for a player who was not added to the roster last winter and could have been taken by any team in the Rule 5 draft. In months, he's gone from a forgotten man to an exceptionally versatile weapon.

"I knew that coming in that that could be a possibility, where I might be in relief for a while and then possibly have a spot start," said Johnson, 25. "But I'm thankful they picked me for the start. They could have picked a couple other guys. There are a lot of guys that are ready for that start. It just fell to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity."

Johnson began the game walking the first two batters, but he retired the next three. He had one-out, two-runner jams in both the third and fourth innings, and again he wiggled out of trouble.

"He was good. He wasn't really wild. Just some deep counts and was pitching off the edges," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "But he was instrumental in us winning. He had [five] days off; he was really in a good position to pitch well if you look at leading up to this. We thought he was the right guy, and he repaid our trust."

Johnson begins his career by winning his first four decisions, something that fellow rookie Wei-Yin Chen also did this year. They are the first to begin their major league careers with the Orioles and win their first four decisions since Travis Driskill began 5-0 in 2002.

Johnson's previous start was Aug. 25, when he also beat the Blue Jays at Camden Yards. In his three starts, Johnson has fanned 22 batters. He has 43 strikeouts in just 33 1/3 innings pitched this season, an amazing statistic considering he rarely tops 90 mph with his fastball. But he also changes speeds effectively and throws a 69-to-70 mph curveball for strikes. Perhaps most important, batters have trouble picking up his modest heater.

"There's some deception in my fastball. I'm not sure what it is. I don't I know if I want to know. But I've just been able to get it by them," Johnson said. "I think I mix up my speeds well, but there's something in my delivery that's a little deceptive that they can't really pick it up well, some days more than others. But usually when I know they are not picking it up well, I can pitch off that."

He did that Monday. And now the hometown kid from Kingsville remains undefeated as a big leaguer in this most surprising season.

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