- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

BALTIMORE — After five years, 12 starts and no wins, Jason Johnson finally ended his Toronto Blue Jays curse.

Johnson pitched 7-1/3 strong innings and neutralized baseball’s second-best hitting team last night. Behind Johnson and Jeff Conine’s two-run homer in the sixth, the Orioles defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5 in the first of a four-game series before 27,022 at Camden Yards.

Johnson improved to 7-3 after going 5-12 last season. He allowed four runs on eight hits, struck out five and walked four.

Among active pitchers, only Pittsburgh’s Jeff Suppan has more career starts versus one opponent without a win (13 starts vs. Seattle), than Johnson experienced against the Blue Jays.

“I knew I hadn’t beaten them, but it’s not like I haven’t pitched good against them,” Johnson said. “I’ve got two complete games against them, and both of them are losses. I wasn’t too worried about that, I just wanted to go out there and win tonight. I knew about it and I wasn’t about to lose the game.”

The Orioles’ bullpen did its best to ruin Johnson’s strong start. When Johnson left the game, the Orioles led 6-2. Relievers Buddy Groom, Kerry Ligtenberg, and Jorge Julio imploded in the eighth inning by surrendering three runs to make it 6-5.

Julio pitched to one batter in the eighth to get the Orioles out of the inning, and earned his 17th save by closing the door in the ninth.

With two outs in the ninth inning, Julio faced Carlos Delgado, who is the American League’s top RBI man with 91 and only the ninth player in baseball history to collect more than 90 before the All-Star break. The Orioles’ closer kept Delgado in the ballpark by allowing a harmless single to center field.

“The last time Delgado faced Julio, he hit the ball a long way, but Jorge was good tonight,” Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said.

Johnson overcame early control problems. The tall right-hander’s curve missed the plate and, for the most part, so did his fastball. He walked three of the first eight batters.

Those passes cost Johnson one run in the second inning. The Blue Jays took an early lead when Johnson grooved a fastball to the weakest hitter in Toronto’s formidable lineup on a 3-1 count.

Blue Jays third baseman Eric Hinske, batting just .231 for the season, sent Johnson’s offering 393 feet over the center field wall for his third home run of the season and a 2-0 lead.

Johnson walked the next two batters, designated hitter Josh Phelps and second baseman Orlando Hudson. Phelps and Hudson executed a perfect double steal as Blue Jays shortstop Chris Woodward went down swinging for the second out of the inning.

Shannon Stewart then lined a single to left that scored Phelps. It took an a terrific throw to the plate from Orioles left fielder Melvin Mora, who gunned down Hudson trying to score from second, that ended the inning and kept the Blue Jays from scoring more than two runs in the second.

After his shaky inning, the 6-foot-6 Johnson got stronger as this game wore on. Johnson retired the side in the fifth inning and struck out two of the four Toronto batters he faced in the sixth inning. Johnson left the game having thrown 114 pitches, 66 for strikes.

Blue Jays starter Doug Davis, a relative unknown who nearly lost his spot in the Blue Jays rotation, looked like the reincarnation of Steve Carlton briefly in this game. The left-hander recorded four strikeouts — one shy of matching his career high — over the first three innings.

Then the Orioles (37-45) started waiting on Davis’ looping curve. The Orioles tagged Davis (4-6) for one run in the third, tied the game 2-2 in the fourth, and knocked out Davis in the fifth.

Notes — The Orioles placed Omar Daal on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his left shoulder and recalled right-hander Rick Bauer from Class AAA Ottawa. Daal (4-10, 5.86 ERA) became the first Oriole pitcher with 10 or more losses before the All-Star break since Mike Boddicker lost 11 games in the first half of 1988. …

The Orioles signed journeyman outfielder Ruben Rivera to a minor league contract yesterday. Rivera has played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues and appeared in 31 games for the San Francisco Giants earlier this year, batting .180 with two home runs and four RBI. He will report to Class AA Bowie tomorrow.

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