Orioles’ success mirrors their anchor in ninth inning

May 11, 2013 | Luke Jones

Opponents are hitting just .197 against him in 71 plate appearances to lead the Baltimore bullpen as one of the club’s biggest strengths again this season. Teammates are in awe of his ability on the hill, but Johnson’s preparation is second to none as you’ll regularly see him in the video room just minutes after closing out another Orioles win. His influence on the organization’s younger pitchers has been praised by many as he endured plenty to become one of baseball’s best closers.

“This guy is good at what he does,” starting pitcher Chris Tillman said. “I sit in the video room and get to watch him every night. It’s fun to watch. I wish I had stuff like he does. He’s got everything. A two-seam fastball, a changeup, that breaking ball. He doesn’t have a weak spot in his repertoire.”

Perhaps Johnson’s dependence on the rest of his teammates is what makes his story so fascinating compared to your typical closer. Though he’s struck out batters at a higher rate (8.1 per nine innings) through the first six weeks of this season than he did in 2012, the closer relies on his defense to help protect leads in the ninth inning.

And no one would blame him as the Orioles have played some of the best defense in all of baseball since the promotion of 20-year-old Manny Machado last August. Now, Johnson sees no weak spot in the field, making him feel at ease as he pitches to contact.

There’s no ego with Johnson as you can’t help but think of Kevin Costner’s famous line as Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham in which he implores Nuke LaLoosh to throw more grounders because they’re “democratic.”

“I use them a lot and I plan on doing it that way,” Johnson said. “Look at our defense across the board. We have three Gold Glovers in the outfield. We have J.J. [Hardy], Gold Glover at short, and [Matt] Wieters behind the plate. Manny [Machado] potentially in the future, [Ryan] Flaherty and [Chris] Davis have been doing great. Those are all capable, high-end gloves in the infield and outfield.”

With the Orioles sitting at 22-14 and tied for first place in the AL East, the comparisons to last season have been made as the club is once again relying on its bullpen a great deal with Johnson at the back end. It isn’t always pretty with an underwhelming starting rotation, but the Orioles’ winning formula has been established after playing winning baseball for nearly a year and a half now.

Since July 29 of last year, the Orioles’ 63-34 mark is the best in baseball and would put them on pace for a 105-win season. Johnson’s role in that success has been as important as anybody’s.

“It is very similar to last year,” Johnson said. “I feel we haven’t lost a step from where we finished last season. But we are still getting better in certain areas. I think now that we are past that first month, guys are getting a good feel for what is going on and what is expected of them. All 25 are pulling in the same direction.”

With Johnson serving as the strongest anchor in baseball.