It's been a rough stretch for Johnson, who opened the season with 14 consecutive saves but has had one of the worst conversion rates in baseball since. And while it's foolish to propose trading him or releasing him -- which fans have called for in the past few days -- it could be time for the right-hander to get a little break in hopes of getting back on track.
Johnson -- who blew the save Tuesday and then gave up another run in the ninth Wednesday for his Major League-leading ninth blown save of the season -- has All-Star-caliber stuff, and he proved it in a phenomenal 2012 campaign. But he hasn't looked like that dominant pitcher at all this season, falling behind frequently and not mixing up his pitches nearly as much.
Part of the reason why Johnson was so good last year was his ability to throw four plus-pitches, similar to a starter, and his fastball action hasn't been there, either, this season. It's a puzzling case, and while manager Buck Showalter is as loyal as they come -- making a point to tell reporters in Arizona that Johnson wasn't wholely to blame -- it could be in his club's best interest to give Johnson a breather.
The Orioles have other options who can close games, with the recently acquired Francisco Rodriguez, Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day. This team needs Johnson to get right to be a postseason contender and, while I don't advocate burying him in the bullpen, getting a chance to work out the kinks and getting a few days off could be exactly what Johnson needs. The O's, who were swept out of Arizona, are about to open a pivotal homestand, and every game matters. Johnson needs to find a way to get his "A" game back.
What's the latest on Wilson Betemit?
-- Kelly C., Washington, D.C.
Betemit was slated to play his second game for Double-A Bowie on Thursday night, and he's coming off a solid debut for the Baysox in which he went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs and a walk. Betemit has had a long road back from a right knee injury, and while his rehab assignment has been slow, there have been positive reports regarding his progress. The biggest obstacle is running, with Showalter often using words like "tentative" and "cautious" to describe Betemit on the basepaths, but that's slowly starting to come around.
Projected to be the Orioles' Opening Day designated hitter, Betemit posted a .302/.357/.502 line against righties in 2012 before suffering the knee injury this spring. If he stays on track, Betemit will play in Baltimore this season, most likely in the form of a September callup for roster expansion. He went 6-for-16 with two doubles and three RBIs in five Gulf Coast League games before being moved up to Bowie.
I liked the Bud Norris trade from the get-go. Now, with Jason Hammel [on the disabled list], I like it even more. What are your early impressions of Norris?
-- Chad H., Atlanta
So far, so good. I agree with you in that I thought the Norris deal was a good one from the onset. And the uncertainty regarding Hammel, who has been sidelined with right forearm tightness, has made the right-hander an integral part of the rotation -- and the bullpen, for that matter, with Norris stepping in to pitch the 14th inning in Wednesday's loss.
The O's made that deal for numerous reasons, and one was the fact that they have Norris under team control, so he's a definite part of their future. What I've been immediately impressed by is how competitive Norris is --despite spending his entire career with cellar-dwelling Houston -- and how much he appreciates being on a winning ballclub. He's mentioned in nearly every postgame interview since he came over in the Trade Deadline deal that he's enjoying being part of a playoff race, and he joked that he nearly scared one of the athletic trainers off the table in San Francisco as he watched the offense unload on the Giants' pitching staff.
Most importantly, of course, is the way Norris has handled himself on the field. He's given the Orioles a chance to win, and they've done that his first three starts in a Baltimore uniform.
I understand Matt Wieters can't catch every game, but it seems like he's had more rest than usual. Is there an injury concern, or something else I'm missing? Taylor Teagarden has been an offensive liability.
-- Steven F., Dundalk, Md.
Take a look at the Orioles' September schedule and you'll notice one thing: a lot of games. The O's have just one off-day in the final month of the season, so Showalter made good use of the five days in August to try to give Wieters a breather. Obviously there's a drop-off offensively from the switch-hitting Wieters to Teagarden, but to be fair, you'd be hard-pressed to be find a capable backup catcher who is defensive-minded and a force at the plate.
Teagarden did look better offensively in Arizona and, most importantly, he handles the pitching staff well and can stop the run game. Wieters will get the bulk of the catching duties in September and, given that, offensively, he responds to more rest, the O's have tried to spell him a little more than usual this month. He also ranks pretty high in innings caught, so he's not exactly getting an extended vacation.
Any possible September callups we should be excited about?
-- Tim K., Frederick, Md.
There are a number of intriguing candidates in the Minor Leagues, including top prospect Kevin Gausman, who could be a rotation candidate or a power arm in the bullpen. Gausman has had two separate stints with the Orioles in his rookie season and could be a weapon for the O's down the stretch.
Top position player prospect Jonathan Schoop, who has rebounded well from a back injury, has been playing well at Triple-A Norfolk and is another buzzed-about guy who figures to see some time in Baltimore in the final month of the regular season.