TORONTO – For most of spring training and his first handful of regular-season appearances, it looked like veteran reliever Jim Johnson had shed whatever contributed to a career-worst 2014 season and returned to dominant form.
Then the Braves came to Toronto.
After allowing just three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 scoreless innings over his first five appearances, Johnson was shellacked for a total of six hits, four runs and two homers in a pair of eighth-inning appearances Friday and Saturday against the Blue Jays.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez wasn’t sure if he would use Johnson Sunday, but only because he’d pitched in back-to-back games. He gave no indication that he would consider temporarily moving Johnson from the eighth-inning setup role, especially given the the Braves’ lack of experienced options.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Gonzalez said before Sunday’s series finale. “But from what I saw in spring training, and other than these two outings here, I think he’s been fine. We always have a tendency to say what’s the matter with a guy as soon as he gives up something.”
“I’m not too concerned over it right now.”
In the eighth inning of each of the first two games at Toronto, Johnson gave up two runs and three hits including a homer. On Friday, he blew most of a three-run lead. On Saturday, the long ball was particularly costly — a two-run homer by Jose Bautista that turned a 4-3 Braves lead into a one-run deficit.
Kelly Johnson answered with a tying homer in the ninth, but the Braves lost 6-5 in 10 innings.
Johnson got a blown save, then questions about whether he was still in an unpredictable stage with his bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker. He compiled 101 saves for the Orioles in 2012-2013, but the sinker was shaky last season when he lost his closer job and posted a bloated 7.09 ERA in 54 appearances with Oakland and Detroit.
So, where was it now, after a couple of months of progress made with Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell?
“The ball’s been doing what it’s supposed to,” Johnson said after Saturday’s game. “Just been a couple of pitches – like (Friday), the ball was more of a runner that it was a sinker. But (Saturday) it was actually pretty good, it was just that one pitch. That one pitch I just didn’t execute. Even on the (other) hits I felt like I executed pretty good pitches.
“That’s part of the adjustment of this game, you focus on the right things, you don’t dwell on the negatives.”
Right-handed batters are 8-for-20 with two homers and four strikeouts against the right-handed Johnson, while lefties are 1-for-9 with one walk and four strikeouts.
Besides the homers, most other hits off Johnson have been ground balls. And as any sinker baller will tell you, there are days when balls get through for hits. But the Blue Jays also smoked a few pitches, and it couldn’t be merely chalked up to familiarity with Johnson from his years in the American League East with the Orioles.
The homer by Bautista was the slugger’s first in 12 at-bats against Johnson, and the homer Friday was by Russell Martin, who spent seven of his previous nine seasons in the National League – the past two with Pittsburgh — and only had six previous at-bats against Johnson.
“I’ve seen them enough,” said Johnson, who has a 2.87 ERA in 41 appearances against the Blue Jays. “I’ve seen them 19 times a year for how many years (with Baltimore). I mean, I know what they’re all about. But they’re just like any other team. You need to make your pitch where you’re supposed to and you’re going to get an out.”
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