Orioles: Justice for Jim Johnson


The Orioles balanced out some of the pain of Friday night’s 9th-inning loss by dropping the same bomb on the bomber-less Yankees Sunday afternoon in New York – pulling out a dramatic 2-1 victory on an Adam Jones two-run shot with one out in the top of the 9th.

The first eight innings are easy to summarize. The Yankees had only one run on six hits, while the Orioles continued to be plagued by great opposition pitching – getting no scores on but three hits off of Hiroki Kuroda. Jason Hammel had a decent outing in giving up only one run in five frames, though his pitch count totaled 102. T.J. McFarland gave up only a walk in two innings, while Troy Patton and Darren O’Day had a clean 8thinning.

Jul 7, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jim Johnson (43) and catcher Matt Wieters (32) celebrate the win against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Baltimore Orioles won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

This set up the dramatic ninth off the great Mariano Rivera. After missing a home run just east of the foul pole (about the same place as McLouth’s in the playoffs), Nick Markakis stroked the next pitch into center field for a one-out single. And then, Mr. Adam Jones got all of a Rivera pitch and deposited it in left-center field – just feet from where Jim Johnson was gently warming up.  J.J. watched the ball land, and went back to a more earnest effort, knowing he was indeed coming into the game.

As with the other evening, I did not look at the Twitter feed leading into the bottom of the 9th, imagining that it was brutal. I actually said a prayer for the guy, for if there was to be another blown save, the Orioles might have had to use all the paper towels in the locker room to soak up the meltdown of their former closer. But Jim Johnson came out of the bullpen like an angry, long-horned bovine entering an arena in Spain. Getting ahead of the first two batters with first-pitch strikes, he was hitting 95s and 96s with a nasty late-action fastball. Two strikeouts and a weak grounder later, Jim Johnson gained a measure of justice.

So, the best closer in the sport over the past season and a half lost a game for his team Friday night; while the greatest closer in the history of the sport lost the game for his team today. That is baseball.

(OK… sermon alert!) It also affirms my oft-written viewpoint that there really is no such thing as a “closer.”  I believe such mythical creatures are about as common as unicorns and Sasquatch. And to quote the song, “Even the best fall down sometimes.”  Notwithstanding today, if you have a Mariano Rivera on your team, you have a closer … if you have a 2012 Jim Johnson, you have a closer. Few teams truly have such a person.

Most teams have a player more suited for this role than any of their other relief arms. So that one person is give the role and title of “closer” – a role that I continue to insist is not demanded by the nature of the sport, but is in existence as the consequence of the invention of a statistical category.  (To read my full rant on this from the past, click HERE.)

So, do I believe in a “closer by committee” philosophy? Essentially yes – this is the default position probably about 90% of teams are living with most of the time (and is how the Orioles likely should right now). There is probably one person who should get the ball in a majority of situations – say even 60% or more of “statistical game closing” scenarios. The remaining situations could be farmed out to another two or three relievers based upon advantageous matchups.

Citing Friday night as an example, coming to the plate for the Yankees were the 9-1-2 hitters. This would be a right-handed batter, followed by up to four consecutive left-handers. Does it not make sense, particularly since Johnson has struggled this year, to have rather used Brian Matusz in that situation?

Why not have several guys who know that it is a part of their role on the team to be called upon on occasion to close out games? That seems like good leadership and strategy to me. What do you readers think?