Jason Johnson's rise from pitching prospect to major league starter to untouchable cornerstone in the Baltimore Orioles' future plans had been fairly smooth until tonight. In the big picture, tonight's 4-1 loss to the New York Mets at Oriole Park at Camden Yards may end up making Johnson a better pitcher. But in the minutes after the loss, all it did was sting.
Johnson, pitching on 12 days of rest because of the all-star break, struggled with his control, fumed at the strike zone of home plate umpire Rick Reed and was generally out-pitched by Mets counterpart Octavio Dotel, who was recalled from the minors today to make just his fourth major league start.
"It's frustrating," Johnson said. "But I need to control my emotions on the mound. I can't let an umpire get in my head. I have to keep it as just me and the hitters, and forget about the umpires."
Johnson (1-4) gave up only two runs, but a high pitch-count spelled an early end, forcing the Orioles to go to their bullpen in the fifth inning.
"When you have a young kid like that," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said, "there's going to be some growing pains."
Armando Benitez, whom the Baltimore Orioles traded this winter, closed out the Mets' victory in typically dramatic fashion, surviving a fly ball by Harold Baines to the wall in left to send the Orioles down in order.
As an extra bit of irony, Benitez ended the game by striking out Charles Johnson on a 100-mph fastball, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd of 42,615. It was Johnson whom the Orioles acquired in the three-way trade that sent Benitez to the Mets. While the Orioles are satisfied with Johnson's defense and power potential, they undoubtedly miss Benitez, especially given the tumultuous state of their bullpen.
Tonight, Orioles left-hander Arthur Rhodes gave up a pair of solo homers in the seventh, turning a 2-1 deficit to a 4-1 deficit. It was more than the Orioles (39-53) could make up against the Mets, the hottest team in baseball over the last six weeks (27-12).
Jason Johnson labored through the first three innings and failed to make it through the fifth, when the Mets strung together four singles to take a 2-0 lead.
Johnson's pitch chart in the early innings was something out of a pitching coach's nightmare. In the first three innings, he walked five batters, fell behind either 2-0 or 3-1 six times, threw first-pitch strikes to just three out of 13 batters, and needed a total of 70 pitches -- only 34 for strikes.
Johnson wasn't helped by Reed, who wasn't calling low strikes. Other times, Reed called balls on fastballs that appeared to catch the inside corner but missed the mitt of Charles Johnson, who had set up on the outside corner.
"I thought they were strikes, and he didn't," Jason Johnson said. "There's not much I could do about it."
But Miller said, "It's hard to yell when you're 3-1 on everybody."
The Mets finally got to Johnson in the fifth, when Mike Piazza's third hit of the game drove in Rickey Henderson from second. Piazza later scored on a single by rookie sensation Benny Agbayani.
Just when the Orioles felt comfortable enough with their starting rotation to go to an 11-man pitching staff instead of a 12-man staff, they have been forced to go to the bullpen in the middle innings two nights in a row.
Rhodes, who was returned to his familiar middle relief role after the all-star break following an unsuccessful stint as co-closer, looked brilliant in finishing off the Mets in the fifth, then retiring the side in order in the sixth.
But Rhodes allowed homers to Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura in the seventh, as the Mets increased their lead to 4-1.
"Believe it or not," Miller said, "that's the best Arthur's thrown in a while."
The Orioles, meantime, were baffled by Dotel, a hard-throwing right-hander who was recalled from Class AAA Norfolk before the game. Dotel retired the first nine men he faced and allowed only three hits over seven sparkling innings, including Will Clark's homer in the fifth.
"That's a good, young arm," Miller said of Dotel. "He was throwing an 86-mile-per-hour cutter like [New York Yankees closer] Mariano Rivera."
CAPTION: Orioles' Charles Johnson and Will Clark (12) convene with pitcher Jason Johnson after he loads the bases in the first inning. Jason Johnson walked five and gave up two runs in 4 2/3 innings.
CAPTION: Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston tags out Mets' Brian McRae, who was thrown out by Baltimore catcher Charles Johnson, in the second inning.