Jim Johnson’s closing argument

NEW YORK - I was flipping through Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue, because I tend to fall behind in my reading, and noticed an ominous prediction regarding Orioles closer Jim Johnson.

Strikeout rate is the single-best predictor of a pitcher’s longevity and effectiveness, according to the magazine, and Johnson fanned only 15.2 percent of the batters he faced last year while setting a franchise record with 51 saves.

Since 2000, nine pitchers have recorded 40 or more saves with a strikeout rate below 19 percent. The following year, according to SI, those pitchers averaged 25 saves with a 4.35 ERA.

We’re only 11 games into the 2013 season. Too early to get a true read on anything and anyone. However, Johnson is off to a pretty good start. That point can’t be disputed.

Johnson has appeared in six games. He’s recorded five saves, all on the road against division opponents, and hasn’t allowed an earned run. He’s walked two and struck out six.

Yesterday, he plowed through the top of the Yankees’ order, getting three ground balls on six pitches. Brett Gardner, Robinson Cano and Kevin Youkilis. Not an easy mark in the bunch, and they couldn’t square up Johnson.

“Big out off Gardner with Cano coming up,” said manager Buck Showalter. “Youkilis swinging the bat real well, and you’ve got (Travis) Hafner sitting there. To close out games on the road in the American League East is a tough, tough thing to do. Jimmy’s been impressive.”

And against the odds, if you believe the SI preview, which I do. It’s not like the author has any reason to make it up.

The bullpen turned in three scoreless innings yesterday, though the loud outs aren’t reflected in the box score. A couple of the fly balls had bad intent, but the Yankees were shut out after the sixth.

“Picking up where we left off last year,” said Brian Matusz, who coaxed two fly balls and a pop-up out of the Yankees after Gardner’s bunt single.

“Just going out and having fun, attacking the zone and throwing strikes and closing ballgames and wanting to pitch well to give the ball to Jim for the save. Just keep working off our success and keep the positive energy and just roll with it.”

Johnson is rolling. He’s pitched in three of the last four games, and he made such short work of the Yankees, he’s probably available again tonight if the Orioles take a slim lead into the ninth inning.

Maybe he’ll retire three batters again without recording a strikeout. Get SI on the phone.

Minor league notes: Zach Britton, who exited his last start after two innings because of a blister on his left thumb, allowed one earned run (two total) and six hits in 5 2/3 innings last night against Gwinnett. He struck out two batters and threw 50 of his 77 pitches for strikes.

Fifteen of his 17 outs came via the ground ball.

Mychal Givens, the second-round pick in 2009 who’s being converted from infielder to pitcher, earned his first professional save last night with two scoreless innings at Class A Delmarva.

Showalter mentioned a few days ago that Givens’ fastball is 92-94 mph.

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