Albers and Johnson Can Pitch in a Pinch

Matt Albers, above, and Jim Johnson have shined in various roles out of the Orioles' bullpen, having pitched one-third of the team's relief innings.
Matt Albers, above, and Jim Johnson have shined in various roles out of the Orioles' bullpen, having pitched one-third of the team's relief innings. (By Chris Graythen -- Getty Images)
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By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

TORONTO, June 9 -- Matt Albers and Jim Johnson have spent portions of this season as the pitching equivalents of utility men.

Starting pitchers by trade, the duo has been used out of the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen to fill varied roles. They have pitched multiple innings in mop-up duty, they have pitched full innings late in games, and they have entered with runners on base as situational specialists, sometimes facing only one hitter.

Albers has even made spot starts, and only a sudden rainstorm kept Johnson from taking a turn as well.

But after answering nearly every type of challenge thrown their way by Manager Dave Trembley, Albers and Johnson have taken on prominent roles in the bullpen as setup men for closer George Sherrill.

While Trembley has generally hesitated to attach specific roles to his relievers, he has increasingly leaned on Albers and Johnson to bridge the gap between starting pitchers and the closer.

"I think we both have the mind-set of doing whatever this team needs," said Albers, who is 3-2 with a 2.74 ERA this season. "I don't really care. I just come ready to pitch, ready to go."

On Tuesday, the Orioles (31-31) begin a three-game series with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. If the Orioles make a statement by taking a series from the best home team in the major leagues, the safe bet is that the improved bullpen will have had something to do with it.

Baltimore is 19-2 when leading after six innings, another testament to the work of the relievers. After struggling to a 5.71 ERA last season, the second worst in the AL, the Orioles' bullpen is sporting a 3.30 ERA, the fourth best in the league.

The bullpen in its current configuration has been so effective that when spots in the Orioles' rotation have come open, especially in the last several weeks, Trembley has passed over Albers and Johnson, instead dipping into the minors for starters Garrett Olson and Radhamés Liz to avoid disrupting the bullpen chemistry.

Trembley's explanation? Albers and Johnson have been too valuable as relievers to move into the rotation, though he said both could become starters in the future. For now, Trembley is content to continue as is.

"Albers is capable of doing a lot of things on this team," Trembley said. "He's capable of starting, he's capable of long, he's come in as a situational guy, and he's capable of being a setup guy."

Albers, who was banged around in 18 starts for the Houston Astros last season, has shown the most versatility, with his relief outings ranging from one batter to 3 2/3 innings. He has also handled the transition with relative ease.

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