Johnson gets ball in ninth, but not official closer

Johnson gets ball in ninth, but not official closer

BOSTON -- Orioles reliever Jim Johnson, who picked up his sixth save in his last seven outings in Tuesday's 7-5 win vs. the Red Sox, has increasingly been getting the ball in save situations, although manager Buck Showalter is hesitant to name the setup man his new closer.

"We might be in a situation where a guy's pitched enough innings and we've used him a couple days in a row and somebody else gets an opportunity," said Showalter, who didn't rule out using incumbent closer Kevin Gregg and Pedro Strop, who increased his scoreless stretch to eight games with the O's on Tuesday night, both getting some potential save opportunities as well.

And while Showalter said Strop likely won't be a candidate for next year's closer, the more hotly debated topic is whether Gregg (0-3, 4.61 ERA) will be. Signed as a free agent to a two-year deal with an option for a third, Gregg (20 for 27 in save opportunities) has been erratic at best and has blown three of his last six save chances. Johnson (5-5, 2.69 ERA) is a guy the Orioles have wanted to try to stretch out as a rotation candidate for next season, and Showalter still wasn't ready to rule out the long-rumored possibility of Johnson getting a start before the regular season concludes.

"It depends on what Boston's status is, kind of, when we play them at the end of the season, and [the next series in] Detroit," said Showalter, who has tried to maintain competitive integrity given how close the American League Wild Card race has become. "But the problem with that happening is it precludes Jimmy from being available [in relief] in [the last series with] Boston, and I don't know if that's fair to Tampa."

There is also the argument that it might not be in the Orioles' best interest to take Johnson, who is their best reliever, out of a bullpen that already figures to need extensive rebuilding this offseason. Asked if there can be anything made of the fact that Johnson, who has pitched to a 1.61 ERA in his last 16 outings, has gotten the ball more often than Gregg in the ninth inning, Showalter wouldn't reveal his cards.

"I'm not going to start handicapping that," Showalter said of next year's closer competition. "There's very few opportunities to see a guy pitch in those kind of pressurized situations. I'm trying to take advantage of as many of those as I can and still give us a chance to win."