- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

JUPITER, Fla. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the Baltimore Orioles' pitching staff this spring from Scott Erickson's attempted return from Tommy John surgery to the wide-open competition for closer duties there is some irony to the fact that Jason Johnson is one of the only stable arms in camp.
Ironic because Johnson might have been the least-stable Orioles pitcher in Florida last spring. He was coming off a horrendous 1-10 season. He was learning how to deal with a new insulin pump attached to his hip (to combat the diabetes he has had since childhood). And his place on Baltimore's major-league roster was anything but guaranteed.
These days, the 28-year-old Johnson is basking in the comfort zone that comes from a career-altering season, one that solidified his place in the Orioles rotation and warranted a two-year contract extension.
"Yeah, there's a little bit of a comfort level. I feel more relaxed than I did last year," said Johnson, who tossed three scoreless innings in yesterday morning's "B" game against the Cardinals. St. Louis beat Baltimore 13-4 in the main afternoon exhibition.
Johnson quite simply was the foundation of the Baltimore pitching staff in 2001, leading the team in wins (10), starts (32) and innings (196) while his cohorts dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness.
Now he's considered a mainstay in the rotation, the likely No.2 starter behind Erickson and ahead of inconsistent Sidney Ponson, once thought of as the organization's top young pitching prospect.
But the Orioles' outlook on those two pitchers may be best revealed in the length and size of contracts that were offered to each during the offseason. Ponson, 25, and coming off a 5-10 season that was cut short because of forearm and elbow injuries, was offered a one-year deal worth $2.65million.
Johnson, who like Ponson was eligible for arbitration, got a two-year contract worth a total of $4.7million a hefty raise from his $350,000 salary in 2001.
Not that the security of a multi-year contract has gotten to Johnson's head.
"I haven't changed my approach," he said. "Even though I have a two-year deal, I still want to work hard and show them they made a good decision."
In that regard, Johnson has spent a good portion of this spring learning how to throw a forkball that could help launch his pitching career to new heights.
The right-hander tinkered with the new pitch late last season at the suggestion of pitching coach Mark Wiley, who felt the forkball would work well with Johnson's over-the-top motion.
"I was just throwing on the side one day and he said you might want to try it," Johnson said. "I don't know if it's that I have big hands or what, but once I held it in my hand with my fingers split, it felt great."
It's not the kind of adjustment Wiley would have suggested a year ago, when Johnson was still trying to make the Orioles' roster and needed to focus on the basics before learning a new pitch.
"Any pitcher, the more time he spends in the big leagues, he can relax a little bit more in spring training and he can count on the fact that he's got a job," Wiley said. "There's less apprehension in going and trying something else than when you're trying to make the club. Once he starts to establish himself, we can see the weaknesses and start to make changes."
Johnson used the forkball which, when thrown correctly, makes a sudden drop just before crossing the plate several times yesterday against the Cardinals. And he'll continue to perfect the pitch in the weeks leading up to Opening Day, hopeful that it will become a reliable "out" pitch.
"Right now it's still a little rusty, because it's the beginning of spring," he said. "But I love throwing it. It's just one more pitch that I have to work with."
Notes
Ponson, who is working on a new changeup this spring, was not nearly as effective as Johnson in the afternoon game. Ponson allowed four runs (all in the second inning) and six hits in three innings of work, including a two-run homer by Edgar Renteria.
"I'm not happy with the second inning," Ponson said. "But it's my second game of spring training, and I'm still trying to get my arm where it needs to be." …
Kris Foster, a long-shot candidate for the closer's job, was rocked in his first appearance of the spring. The 27-year-old right-hander, acquired last year with catcher Geronimo Gil from the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Mike Trombley, was tagged for six runs and seven hits in one inning.


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