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MacArthur: Johnson in midst of 'frustrating' season

Scott MacArthur
7/15/2013 1:26:11 AM
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BALTIMORE, Maryland - Josh Johnson, the Blue Jays' 6'7" right-hander, gave up seven runs in six innings in Sunday's loss to the Orioles.

No cute play on numbers could lessen the ugliness of Johnson's latest outing in the 7-4 defeat, which cost Toronto another series against a divisional opponent and dropped the club to 7-13 in 20 games since an 11-game win streak captivated the city.

"Well they hit him around pretty good," said manager John Gibbons.

Did they ever.

Baltimore went single, single, fly ball out, RBI single, two-RBI double, fly ball out, RBI single, strikeout in the first inning. Four runs, five hits and Toronto was in an early hole.

Johnson, whose size alone should command a presence, once again pitched small. His fastball too often caught too much of the plate. The Orioles' lineup, which has belted 132 home runs on the season, by far the most in baseball, made him pay on two occasions.

Chris Davis hit a two-run shot in the third (that two-RBI double in the first, also Davis') and Adam Jones hit a solo dinger in the fifth.

Johnson remains stuck on one win; the Blue Jays have won only three of his 12 starts.

It's been a difficult season, obviously, which Johnson admitted to TSN.ca.

"More frustrating, I guess," he said. "It's not for a lack of effort or anything like that or being hurt or feeling anything in there that you're unsure about. It's just frustration, feeling good and not being able to get outs and get as deep into a game as you want to. It's just frustrating. You want to throw the ball better for this team."

Baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters make out seven times out of 10. It's a good season for a pitcher if he wins 15 of his 33 starts.

R.A. Dickey has written and talked about "managing regret." Johnson has struggled to do so at times, forgetting that he's good and giving hitters too much credit.

"I think whenever you struggle you can get away from that," said Johnson. "You can kind of be like, okay, this guy is hitting this pitch or whatever. That's whenever you start getting those mental voices in your head that are talking. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't but I think a little bit it was early on, or a couple of starts ago."

There are the phone calls and the text messages. Loved ones and friends with an encouraging word, even some with advice but Johnson has closed ranks when it comes to baseball talk. He keeps close to teammates, particularly Mark Buehrle, and he works closely with pitching coach Pete Walker.

"Even when you have a track record like him and guys that have been around the game a lot and pitched a lot of innings they still go through a period where maybe they second guess their stuff a little bit or don't give themselves enough credit," said Walker. "I think he went through a little bit of a period during the season when that was the case."

Bullpen coach Pat Hentgen recalled his toughest season in the big leagues, in 1995, when he went 10-14 with a 5.17 ERA out of the players' strike. Calling it a serving of "humble pie" after All-Star seasons in 1993 and 1994 (Johnson also is a two-time All-Star, with Florida in 2009 and 2010,) Hentgen says he refocused in the offseason and bounced back with a 20-win campaign in 1996. He won the Cy Young Award.

Hentgen can relate to Johnson's crisis of confidence. Just one problem: there isn't an offseason right around the corner to correct the mind. In its stead, Hentgen offers some advice.

"I think first off, after spending seven years in the National League, you come over here and you don't realize the knowledge that you've acquired during that span," said Hentgen. "I think right now he doesn't know the hitters as well as he did in the National League and that has an effect. That's one. Two, I would think that he just needs to get ahead more and get out of the middle. It sounds easy but it's not. If it was easy a lot of guys would do it. Josh has got great mechanics, he's got great fastball command, there's no reason why he shouldn't be able to get strike one on hitters and even get strike two and then go to work."

Despite the inconsistency on the mound, Johnson has been steadfast in his assertion that he is not looking ahead to his impending free agency. Ask him today and you get the same response you did in spring training.

"Just the here and now," he said. "This team, this is who I'm with and you can't sit there and say all right, what if I do this, what happens if this, and nothing happens and you're worrying about all that for nothing. All I worry about is going out there, working hard everyday to make sure I'm ready for the next start and throwing the ball well."

It's unlikely Johnson has much, if any, trade value at the moment. It makes more sense for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to keep Johnson and make him a qualifying offer.

Johnson could accept and return on a one-year deal at a dollar amount reasonably similar to this season's $13.75-million price tag. Maybe he bounces back in 2014 and the move pays off.

Johnson could also reject the qualifying offer, leaving him to test the free agent waters but assuring the Blue Jays a compensatory draft pick.

Those are matters for another day.

As it stands, if the Blue Jays are to contend or tease contention this season, Johnson must be better. Much better.

And until he proves otherwise, that's a pretty big "if."

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