As the Orioles gradually expanded their September roster and assigned pitchers and position players to their taxi squad in Sarasota, right-hander Steve Johnson was one of the more prominent names missing from either list. He wasn’t coming to Camden Yards and he wasn’t working out at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Johnson, 27, was bothered this summer by tendinitis in his shoulder that forced him onto the disabled list and limited him to 13 appearances at Triple-A Norfolk. His innings and pitch counts were closely monitored, but he never regained his command.
Johnson underwent an MRI recently and was diagnosed with a Bennett lesion behind the shoulder. He’s scheduled to undergo surgery on Sept. 24 in New York and expects to be full-go for the start of spring training.
According to radiopaedia.org, A Bennett lesion is mineralization of the posterior band of the inferior glenohumeral ligament as a result of extra-articular posterior capsular avulsion injury.
Um ... yeah.
Simplified by the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery, a Bennett lesion is a bony spur at the posterior glenoid that is often seen in baseball players.
It’s a spur behind his shoulder that’s irritating his rotator cuff. That’s the best way for a sportswriter to describe it.
Johnson was told after an earlier exam that he had a few small tears in his rotator cuff that were manageable with rest and rehabilitation. He continued to pitch, making three starts at short-season Single-A Aberdeen and eight more at Norfolk.
“I tried it and felt OK through the rest of the season, but my velo wasn’t where it needed to be and I wasn’t pitching well,” said Johnson, who was a combined 0-3 with a 6.23 ERA in 17 starts, with 50 hits, 38 walks and 40 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings. “It was more like discomfort. I had pain before and then it just started being discomfort later in the season. I got the MRI and they said they found a lesion on the back of my shoulder, basically a bone spur, which is better news, I think.
“They’re going to go in and shave that out and basically create more room and hopefully give my shoulder space and free-and-easy stuff and eliminate everything that was happening before.”
Orthopedic surgery Dr. David W. Altchek will handle the procedure on Johnson, the St. Paul’s grad who was 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) as a rookie in 2012.
Johnson said there’s no way to know whether the surgery will solve the issue, “but I think from everything we’ve done and everything we’ve heard, it will create a lot more space and I think that would alleviate the inflammation and make my shoulder not be as tight, and be able to get the motion back and hopefully my velo comes back up.”
Johnson’s fastball can top out at 91 mph, though it routinely sits in the high 80s, but it was down to 82 in his last two starts with Norfolk.
“I was throwing as hard as I can,” Johnson said. “I was topping out at 86. I know I have some deception and I can get away with some lower velocities, but when you’re constantly throwing in the mid-to-low 80s with your fastball, there’s not a lot you can do to get the ball by guys.”
A pitcher who has worked in a rotation and out of the bullpen now feels a sense of relief.
“It looks like this could be the answer,” he said. “There isn’t a 100 percent, this is the thing, but it feels like this would make sense, that something in the back of my shoulder was limiting me. I still had my velocity at times and the pain wasn’t really there, but it makes sense that my cuff would have a lot easier time through if the lesion’s not there.
“It’s a possible four-month process. There’s no real rehab to strengthen anything back up. Basically, you let it heal. I’ll do my usual cuff strengthening exercises and hope to be ready for spring training and be a full-go. That’s definitely a relief in that sense. Anytime it’s something with your cuff, you worry about it, but this makes me feel a lot better.”
Johnson remains on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, but he could be removed or placed on the 60-day disabled list to create space. He’s out of minor league options next season. His future in the organization is up in the air.
Perhaps he will come to camp as the 2015 version of Chris Tillman or Zach Britton - a pitcher who’s out of options and must make the team in some fashion. A pitcher who answers the challenge and establishes himself in the majors.
“I hope so,” he said. “I understood my situation going into this year. That’s why I tried to come back and pitch through the discomfort. See if something clicks and I get called up. Put a couple good starts together. And it just didn’t work out.
“I understand what has to be done coming into next spring training. I just hope I’m healthy and back to form. I haven’t put myself in the best situation the last few years due to injuries. Hopefully, I’m healthy going into camp and things work out. At the same time, I know the business side of everything and they’ll do what they have to do.”
The Orioles will be all business on the field tonight, but they’ll turn into little boys if they clinch the division.
Cover those lockers in plastic and stand back.
Ubaldo Jimenez has a chance to pitch the Orioles into the playoffs. Baseball is a funny game.
Last night, Wei-Yin Chen became the first Orioles left-hander to win at least 16 games since Jimmy Key in 1997.
The Orioles won their last division title in 1997.
A funny game, indeed.