Johnson confident he'll be ready for opener

Johnson confident he'll be ready for opener

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Manager Buck Showalter said Friday that his club, like many others, has a lot of pesky injury issues that he hopes can be resolved in the final week-and-a-half of Spring Training. Chief among them is right-hander Jim Johnson, an integral part of the bullpen, who was moved along cautiously this spring while dealing with a lower back strain that kept him out of games the first half of camp.

"It's one of those little nagging things that I go, 'OK,' and trust a guy," Showalter said of Johnson's health. "He's obviously slated to serve a pretty important role for us."

A strong candidate to be the team's closer, Johnson is 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four Grapefruit League outings, a line that looks worse than it is given that he allowed three runs in his spring debut on March 14. His velocity and command haven't been particularly sharp, although the right-hander said Friday that with each progressive outing, things are improving.

"I don't like throwing slower than I can, trust me," said Johnson, whose fastball was clocked at 89-91 mph during a scoreless inning in Fort Myers, Fla., against the Twins on Thursday. "It's just the way it is right now because of not being able to work out how I normally do [in the winter]. Now that I'm able to do more and more, it will come back. It's just going to take a little time."

Johnson, who lives in Sarasota year-round, said he typically starts throwing in mid-December in preparation for the upcoming season, but the back injury prevented him from getting going until February. He estimated at the beginning of camp that he was about a week behind Baltimore's other pitchers, but the Orioles chose to move slowly and have Johnson work his way up to a full mound and throw several bullpen sessions and batting-practice sessions before getting in a "B" game on March 11. He made his Grapefruit League debut against the Pirates three days later, allowing three runs on four hits, and said later he felt like he was pitching "underwater," a sensation that has gone away as he's gotten more comfortable and has gotten some innings under his belt.

Asked about his level of concern with Johnson, Showalter said, "I worry about everything. If you want to judge the whole thing, do I have to see him go out there and throw 93-96 [mph] with unbelievable sink and guys can't put it in play firmly? I'd love to, but I trust Jimmy. Jimmy will be honest with us, too. So far, so good if I keep in mind where he was and where he's gotten to."

Selected by the Orioles in the fifth round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, Johnson has served a myriad of roles in the organization, and his recent success has made him one of the team's most sought-after players by other clubs. Used primarily as a setup man last season, Johnson set career highs in games (69), wins (six), innings pitched (91) and strikeouts (58), and he pitched to a 2.22 ERA in his final 56 games, prompting Showalter to increasingly give him the ball in the ninth. Johnson converted his final eight save chances and did not allow a run in 50 of his outings.

There was internal discussion at the end of last year about moving Johnson into a starting role, but the team opted against it, given his injury history -- he pitched just 26 1/3 innings in 2010 due to a right elbow injury -- and team need. With closer Kevin Gregg's struggles last year and rampant rumors that he could be traded, Johnson is a critical piece in the Orioles' bullpen. Having him healthy and productive will go a long ways in locking down games.

Johnson said he is not concerned with being ready to go for Opening Day on April 6, and his early velocity readings shouldn't be a cause for alarm.

"I mean, throwing 91 [mph] in Spring Training is like throwing 94 [mph] during the season," Johnson said. "When the lights come on, everything's a little different. I can throw a bullpen [session], try to throw as hard as I can, and it's 88 [mph]. You put a hitter in there, it goes up to 91 [mph]. You turn the lights on, it's 94 [mph]. I don't know how to explain it. It's just the way it works.

"I think I'm where I need to be to be ready for the season. Yeah, there's definitely room to make up, but I'll be fine."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.