It doesn’t seem that long ago that Steve Johnson was deciding whether he should re-sign with the Orioles. And later, whether he should become a minor league free agent if the Orioles didn’t place him on the 40-man roster.
Now he’s still washing champagne out of his hair.
Johnson’s professional life took some crazy turns, including the one that pointed him toward the playoffs. He won all four of his major league decisions, posting a 2.11 ERA and striking out 46 batters in 38 1/3 innings. And he earned the trust of manager Buck Showalter, who included him on the wild card roster.
“This is what you work for, to be put on the 40-man and eventually be called up,” Johnson said. “That’s all I was looking for last year. It didn’t happen in the offseason the way I wanted it to, but I made it work to where I was able put up a good season and get called up.
“It’s great to have a little bit of security, but it’s not full because I still have a lot of work to do and a lot to prove. I’ve got to keep doing it. One year is great, but in order to really have security, you have to do it over and over again. In my mind, yeah, it’s nice to be with the Orioles and to be in spring training next year, as of right now, but I want to keep going and keep getting better.”
The last image of Johnson for 2012 came in the first inning of the wild card game in Texas, when he began to warm up while starter Joe Saunders was facing his third batter. I’ve never seen a reliever start to throw that early unless it was due to an injury.
“We all knew he might be on a short leash there and he was kind of a little erratic with the first batter and he got behind the second one,” Johnson said. “In my mind I was like, I already might want to start stretching just in case. And especially in Texas, an inning can get out of hand in a heartbeat. I was going to start stretching so I could possibly be ready. I got up and the phone rang. My heart was beating fast.
“I didn’t know they hit into a double play. I was told to get down and I didn’t even realize it, I was trying to get ready so quick. I’m glad he got out of it and he pitched one heck of a game.”
The Orioles advanced to the American League Division Series and lost to the Yankees in five games. Johnson wasn’t included on the roster, but he stayed with the team and dressed in a quiet Yankee Stadium clubhouse after the final out.
“It was a tough mindset knowing, oh crap, the season is over,” he said. “It’s just crazy. Like with the wild card game. If we win, we go on, and if we lose, it’s over. I’ve never been a part of that before in the minors. I’ve never been in the playoffs. When the season ends, you go home and it’s usually an exciting time. But with all the expectations we had, we had the mindset that we really wanted to go all the way. It was definitely tough. The first couple of days afterward, I wanted to keep going to the field and keep going.”
Johnson will always have the memory of that champagne celebration in Texas.
“Looking back on that, I hope we have more, but for it being the first time in as long as it had been that the Orioles were in the playoffs, man, that was definitely a great thing be part of,” said Johnson, the St. Paul’s grad who was a fan long before he was a teammate.
“I know it meant a lot to all the guys in the clubhouse and to the fans who were able to watch it. It was a great experience for me. I had a blast. I’ll definitely be able to remember that moment, especially since it was the first time we made the playoffs in a long time. Hopefully, we can have many more champagne celebrations.”
Johnson normally takes off a few months before he resumes throwing. He’s in the process of figuring out a new schedule, as unaccustomed as he is to pitching in October. And he’s got to consider a left knee that required him to wear a brace as the playoffs approached.
“I want to get my knee fully healed,” he said. “It’s good. I just want to make sure nothing lingers into next year. I’ll take it easy on that for a little while.”
Johnson will be busy Nov. 3, when he’ll join his father, former Orioles pitcher and current MASN analyst Dave Johnson, at a clinic for kids ages 9-12 at Extra Innings Baltimore North on Rossville Boulevard to raise money via a $100 donation for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The event will run from 2-4 p.m. and include instruction on pitching, fielding and hitting. Father and son will sign autographs and hand out T-shirts.
For online registration and payment, go to www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/strikeoutbloodcancer
“This is the first time we’ve done anything together to support and raise money for a cause,” said Steve Johnson. “I’ve done clinics with him when he had baseball camps when I was younger. I helped out with them. But this is more. We’re trying to raise money and do a little clinic and have some autographs and participate in the Walk for Life fundraiser later that night.
“I’ve been fortunate my whole life to have him there with me. I’ve always seen him give back and do things for the Orioles, always out in the community. That’s been his thing since I can remember. That’s always been what he does. For me to be in a position to be able to contribute with him and do things together, it means a lot to me and I’m sure a lot to him, as well. It’s great that we have that.
“The whole thing with me and him having our first wins on the same day, all the good things that happened for me and him, I’m fortunate to be in a position to help him give back.”
Note: Orioles third base coach DeMarlo Hale is interviewing for the Red Sox’s managerial job today, according to multiple reports.
It still appears that Blue Jays manager John Farrell is the frontrunner for the job, if compensation can be worked out.