Jim Johnson’s consecutive saves streak ended at 35 games Tuesday night in a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres. Johnson’s streak was one better than Randy Myers’ previous Orioles record of 34 and one worse than Mariano Rivera’s personal best of 36. Eric Gagne is in a world all his own with his major league record of 84 consecutive saves for the Los Angeles Dodgers. While it’s interesting to see how Johnson’s run stacks up to those of other great relievers, the more remarkable context is that of his own career.
Pegged as a starter when he was drafted by the Orioles in 2001, Johnson made his debut on July 29, 2006 in a dubious outing against the White Sox: three innings pitched, nine hits, eight earned runs, no strikeouts and three walks. That was his only big league appearance until the following season when he tossed two innings, this time in a relief role, on April 25, 2007. He allowed three hits and two runs, with one strikeout against two walks. Overall, he pitched five innings in two years and allowed 10 earned runs.
Johnson’s official rookie season came in 2008, and by then the 25-year-old seemed to have things figured out. Now locked into a relief role, he didn’t allow a run in his first 10 games of the 2008 season, a total of 16 1/3 innings, and issued only two free passes. He earned his first big league save during that stretch with 3 1/3 innings of work against the Yankees on April 19. He struggled a bit that May but emerged as the set-up guy to George Sherrill and totaled a 2.37 ERA in 64 2/3 innings pitched by the time Sherrill went down with injury in August. Instead of a potential audition for the closer’s role, Johnson soon found himself on the shelf as well due to shoulder soreness.
Still a set-up guy in 2009, Johnson took over the closer’s role for the first time in August after Sherrill was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He blew three of 11 chances - he had six blown saves overall on the season - and the Orioles signed Mike Gonzalez during the offseason. Like the music he enters to at Camden Yards, Johnson seemed a pretender to the closer’s role.
Johnson acknowledged, “I probably tried to overdo it,” as a closer, and manager Dave Trembley agreed: “He did try to do a little more than he should have when he was the closer. I think he’ll be better suited for the eighth inning.”
Brought up as a starter, he retained a starter’s mindset as a closer.
“I thought he tried to adjust too much,” then pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “You started to see too many different pitches in different counts, and it’s really not Jim Johnson. He got away from his sinker. He got away from what he loves.”
By that time, Johnson had wavered between so many roles in the Orioles organization - starter, middle reliever, set-up man, closer - that he simply declared: “I’m a pitcher.”
“I’ll be pitching between the second and the eighth innings and sometimes in extras,” Johnson said during spring training in 2010. “Just give me the ball whenever.”
By May of that season, he was demoted to the minors. Johnson was still in the minors, now on an injury rehab assignment, when Buck Showalter took over the team. Showalter went to see him pitch at Double-A Bowie, but needed help identifying which player was Johnson. He was almost literally a forgotten man.
For six of eight big league seasons, Johnson didn’t have the look of a starter, didn’t have the look of a closer and was starting to look like he had lost his touch as a reliever and set-up man. In season seven, he established a new Orioles record for saves with 51, and in season eight he set the team record for consecutive saves.
Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.