To provide perspective on how much Buck Showalter has transformed the culture of the Baltimore Orioles in such a short period of time, if closer Jim Johnson had blown three straight saves to put his total at nine for the season two years ago this August day, your average sports fan in Baltimore would have told you, “Now that Boldin and Flacco have a year together, I look for big things. Not only that, Lee Evans hasn’t dropped a pass all training camp. If the Ravens can get by New England they’ll go to the Super Bowl!”
Ouch! But that’s the point. The Orioles made Baltimore forget about Lee Evans through the summer of 2012 with their first winning record and postseason appearance in 15 years. Now, just one year later, the Ravens are defending Super Bowl champions, yet angry mobs armed with pitchforks and tracking dogs roam the streets of Baltimore in search of the beleaguered Orioles closer.
After dropping three straight one-run walk-off decisions to Arizona, the final two coming on blown Johnson saves, the Good Ship Oriole seems to have hit rocks, and there is no question Johnson deserves his share of the blame. After all, he received plenty of the credit while he was racking up 51 saves in 54 attempts last season as well as through this season when he reached a club-record 35 consecutive saves.
All of that comes with the territory because being the closer is like being the quarterback — you likely receive too much credit for the wins, and sometimes too much blame for the loss.
To be fair, Johnson, who still leads the majors with 39 saves, hasn’t seemed right for much of the season. Generally speaking you can get a read on what kind of a ride you might be in for after the first three or four pitches he throws upon entering a game. When his release point comes from an up-and-down posture, as though his back is hurting, it usually seems to mean trouble. When there is more bend in his back, it usually winds up being a strong outing.
Certainly Johnson, Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair are aware of this, whether it truly means anything or not. But we’re not here to fix Johnson’s delivery or to point out he hasn’t had much of a fastball of late. We’re here to point out that while the Orioles are still a very good team, they might not be good enough to return to the postseason this season with such good teams ahead of them in the tight wild-card standings. And oh, by the way, that would be the Yankees suddenly three games behind the O’s and about to go on a white-hot roll of their own now that they have bats in the lineup.
Ah ... bats. With the addition of a good right-handed bat, the O’s could go on a roll themselves, but as the roster is constituted they have proven they are not capable of winning much more than five games in a row. The starting rotation is made up of No. 3 and No. 4 starters. The bullpen has been overworked from the start, as starters couldn’t get out of the sixth inning for most of the season.
Not only that, odd as this might seem to say about the team that leads the majors in home runs, the Orioles offense is just not good right now. There have been three second basemen on the roster for much of the season, and no designated hitter to speak of for the entire season. Yes, Johnson has blown three straight saves, but how many men did the Orioles leave on base in those games? Wednesday alone they left nine, which isn’t that bad by their recent standards. But they went the final 12 innings without scoring a run.
There are other factors. Despite what is called a quality start, the starting pitching is again taxing the bullpen. Set-up relievers come in to hit and walk the first two batters they face to put tie and go-ahead runs on base. The third baseman gives up a run by committing defensive interference (looked like a horrible call, but you’re just not allowed to touch the runner when there’s no play), and the center fielder plays a flyball into a triple and a run — all coming in one-run losses.
Again, not to absolve Johnson of any blame or responsibility because he’s earned both. However, the offense is currently putting pressure on every other facet of the team — starting pitching, the bullpen and the defense. Easier said than done, of course, but we suggest General Manager Aykroyd find a right-handed bat as soon as possible.
As for the closer, Showalter is obviously faced with a major decision. Johnson’s body language is horrible, his confidence seems shot and his performance has played down to both. Last year was once-in-a-lifetime stuff, so nobody can expect him to reach that level again. But the time finally seems right for him to be eased into an earlier-innings role for now to help him work back to being the Jim Johnson we saw prior to the All-Star break.
For now, Tommy Hunter works the eighth and Francisco Rodriguez becomes the closer? Maybe. But don’t look for Johnson to disappear either, because if the Orioles are going to make a late push they’re going to need him, and they’re going to need him in an important capacity.
Showalter’s loyalty to his players is admirable. But in professional sports, loyalty must be repaid to the team. Something’s got to give, and it’s time for the manager to do the giving.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at email@example.com