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There was a time not long ago when many doubted that Jim Johnson held the right mindset or ability for the Orioles’ closer role.
The 29-year-old right-hander certainly doesn’t fit the description of most ninth-inning men. Not only does Johnson strike out fewer batters than the typical closer but he fanned fewer hitters per nine innings (5.4) than any regular member of the Baltimore bullpen last season.
But that didn’t stop Johnson from collecting a club-record and major league-leading 51 saves and being named to his first All-Star team in 2012 as the Orioles advanced to the postseason for the first time in 15 years. His heavy sinker that induces ground ball after ground ball has allowed him to convert 35 consecutive save opportunities, breaking Randy Myers’ franchise record in Friday night’s remarkable 9-6 comeback victory in 10 innings.
In many ways, Johnson’s success mirrors the Orioles’ prosperity as it was late in the 2011 season when he took over the closer role for good after mixed results in brief stints prior to that. The club finished that season going 14-8 in what’s now viewed as a precursor to the remarkable 2012 season. Since Sept. 7, 2011, Johnson’s 72 saves are the most in baseball and the Orioles have gone 129-91. Many have struggled to explain the success both have found, but that’s just fine with Johnson.
“I think it is more about knowing what kind of pitcher you are,” Johnson said. “I do it differently than other people. When I first started, I tried to be something I wasn’t. I tried to be a typical closer and strike guys out all the time and that is not who I am. Then, I reverted back to pitching how I normally do and good results followed.”
Johnson’s journey to become arguably the best closer in baseball hasn’t been a smooth one as it was only in 2010 when his career appeared to be at a crossroads. Struggling out of the gate with a 6.52 ERA in 10 appearances, Johnson was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk before it was discovered that he was dealing with right elbow inflammation.
It was during a rehabilitation stint in August of that season when Johnson first met new Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who had traveled to Bowie to see how the reliever was progressing. In one of his favorite stories to tell about his closer, Showalter explained how he saw Johnson give up a home run on a changeup that was clocked at 88 miles per hour.
Upon seeing his new manager when getting back to the dugout, Johnson asked Showalter what he thought. The manager quipped that he needed to work on that pitch, fully understanding the right-hander was working on his array of pitches during the outing against Double-A hitters who were otherwise overmatched. Even then as Johnson was just working his way back to form, Showalter knew he had something special to work with out of the bullpen.
“It was the first time I saw him,” Showalter said. “But that’s what [the good ones] look like.”
For years, the debate continued whether Johnson would be better suited to start or relieve as even Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer believed his four-pitch repertoire — the sinker, a nasty curveball, an underrated changeup, and a four-seam fastball — would make him a successful starter. Coming up through the Orioles system as a starter, Johnson was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year as well as the Carolina League pitcher of the year for the 2005 season.
Showalter can’t help but draw comparisons between Johnson and future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, whom he managed at the end of his tenure as Yankees manager. Rivera followed a similar progression in beginning his career as a starter before moving to middle relief and eventually closing out victories for a winning club. Before briefly reconsidering Johnson’s role two years ago, Showalter decided the ninth inning would be the perfect place for him.
“Jimmy’s been through all those same processes,” said Showalter in comparing him to Rivera. “I thought it was the best for him to stay healthy with a lot of the things that go on with pitchers. The biggest thing is his ability as a pitcher. He has multiple ways to get you out.”
The Orioles saw their faith in Johnson rewarded in 2012 as he saved 51 of 54 opportunities to become the first Baltimore closer since George Sherrill to make the All-Star team. He began his current streak of 35 straight save conversions on July 30 of last season, but it was his postseason failure that stung the most for Orioles fans after Johnson had been so outstanding all year.
In Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Johnson entered in the ninth inning with the game tied 2-2 before allowing the go-ahead home run to Yankees catcher Russell Martin and five runs total in the inning as the Orioles fell 7-2. Game 3 brought an even more painful result as Johnson came on in the ninth inning with the Orioles holding a 2-1 lead at Yankee Stadium and gave up the game-tying home run to Raul Ibanez. Baltimore lost the game in extra innings as it was the only time since Aug. 8, 2011 that the Orioles have lost a game in which they held a lead at the end of seven innings.
Johnson took full responsibility for the postseason struggles by waiting at his locker for reporters after both losses. Instead of dwelling on those failures and allowing the disappointment to linger into the 2013 season, the closer has converted all 14 save opportunities and entered Saturday tied for the major-league lead in saves.