Baltimore Orioles Manager Ray Miller today backed pitcher Jason Johnson's criticism of the strike zone in Monday night's loss, but added that Johnson was partly to blame for his poor outing.

Johnson gave up nine earned runs in four-plus innings in a 10-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He said an inconsistent strike zone by home plate umpire Durwood Merrill gave him no choice but to "throw it down the middle and let them hit it."

"I guess that's all you can do," Miller said today. ". . . I'll admit the strike zone was not good for either team [Monday] night. Jason is very conscious about keeping the ball down in the zone, and the times he hasn't gotten [the low-strike call], he has had bad games."

Immediately after the game, Miller said Johnson was "not nearly as sharp" as in previous starts. Miller elaborated on that point today.

"One of the biggest pitches in the game is a 1-1 pitch, because it either goes to 1-2 or 2-1," Miller said. "And last night on every 1-1 count, Jason bounced a breaking ball or a change-up that wasn't even close to the plate. Now it's 2-1, and you have to go after the hitter."

More Rest for the Weary

As the Orioles' season dwindles to the last 50 games, the accumulating toll of aches and pains has led Miller to spread off-days around more liberally among veteran starters.

Catcher Charles Johnson and first baseman Will Clark were both out of the lineup Monday night, and Miller said he expects to rest shortstop Mike Bordick on Wednesday. In recent days, left fielder B.J. Surhoff and designated hitter Harold Baines have been held out of the lineup.

"It seems like everyone we freshen up comes back the next day and has a good game," Miller said.

Baines Walks to a Milestone

Two walks Monday night gave Baines 1,001 in his career, joining teammate Cal Ripken as one of seven active players to have at least 1,000 walks, 1,000 RBI and 300 home runs in their careers, according to the Orioles' public relations staff. The others are Barry Bonds, Chili Davis, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff and Frank Thomas.