As Steve Johnson walked off the mound and worked his way back to the Bowie Baysox’s dugout this past spring, the former St. Paul’s School star suddenly found himself overcome with optimism—something he hadn’t felt much during the previous 13 months.
After yielding a first inning home run during a late April matchup with Akron, Johnson had held the Aeros without a hit or a run for the next five innings, guiding the Class-AA Baysox to an early season victory.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘OK, here we go. This a fresh start.’” Johnson recalled.
To that point, Johnson had been mired in a year-long struggle that seemingly wouldn’t end, having endured an extremely tough and frustrating 2010 season as well as a disappointing start to this year. But, to Johnson, that performance signaled he was ready to finally turn the corner and get back to the consistently high level of play he had performed at during his first season in the Orioles’ organization in 2009.
And that’s exactly what’s happened.
Since that effort, which actually followed two shaky performances for Class-AAA Norfolk, the 23-year old Johnson is 5-4 with a 3.52 ERA in 19 combined starts for Bowie and Norfolk, as of Aug 8. He was 5-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts for the Baysox prior to being promoted back to Norfolk in June.
After yielding 10 earned runs in his first start back with the Tides, Johnson has limited opponents to two earned runs or less in six of his last eight starts and hasn’t allowed more than four runs in any start during that span.
“The year’s been what I wanted it be so far,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t ready for Triple-A early on after changing my mechanics, and wasn’t there mechanically yet, but I moved back to Bowie, and since then everything has clicked. I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.”
At , Johnson was named the Baltimore Sun Player of the Year as a senior in 2005 after going 10-2 with a 1.27 ERA while also batting .485 with 33 runs scored and 19 doubles.
He finished his Crusaders career with a 34-6 record as a pitcher and also set state records for hits (156), runs scored (147) and doubles (41). He was a part of St. Paul’s MIAA “A” Conference championship teams in 2003 and 2004.
A 13th round pick for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005, Johnson is 44-41 with a 4.31 ERA in seven minor league seasons with the Dodgers and the Orioles. He was traded to the Orioles, along with third baseman Josh Bell, in exchange for closer George Sherrill in 2009.
“He just had a phenomenal career at St. Paul’s,” said Johnson’s high school coach, Paul Bernstorf, who guided the Crusaders from 1996-2009. “He was as dominating a player as there has been in Maryland high school baseball in quite a while. He’s just a phenomenal player, and it’s been neat to watch him progress and work his way through the minor leagues.”
Johnson describes himself as being a four-pitch pitcher—a four-seam fastball, a slow curveball, a slider and a change-up. He prides himself on trying to “mix up pitches and just throw off hitters’ timing” in an attempt to offset the fact that, admittedly, he isn’t the most overpowering of pitchers.
“He throws just your four basic pitches,” said his father, Dave Johnson, who was a pitcher for the Orioles from 1989-91 and now covers the team for MASN. “But he’s deceptive, tenacious and has a real knack for being able to do more with less. I’m very proud of him. It was frustrating to watch him go through what he went through last year, though, especially since mechanically he just wasn’t right.”
Johnson was 3-2 with a 2.84 ERA in eight starts for the Baysox in 2009, but, plagued by problems with his mechanics and control, stumbled to a 7-8 record with Bowie last season, posting an abysmal 5.09 ERA as well as nearly five walks per every nine innings pitched.
“I wouldn’t wish what I went through last year, both mentally and results-wise, on anybody,” Johnson said. “Things just weren’t working and it was really tough on me. I was taking the mound worrying about walking guys, giving home runs and was just trying to do whatever I could to throw strikes, and you can’t pitch like that. I couldn’t wait for last season to end.”
He added, though, “Having a year like that is awful, but it can be helpful too and gave me a little motivation heading into the offseason.”
So Johnson spent the offseason tweaking his mechanics, shortening his arm angle, among other changes, and the work has paid off, although he says he would still like to throw strikes more consistently and be able to go deeper into games.
He says he is focused on continuing his progress, though, and hopes to be able to do enough at Norfolk to warrant a shot at the major league level at some point this season.
“My main goal is to get to the big leagues,” Johnson said. “They’re struggling up there right now and I’d love to be an option for them and to be able to come up and help them out.”
Dave, meanwhile, acknowledges that his son still needs to improve his command, especially with his fastball, and needs to be able to throw more strikes early in the count. But he believes Steve has all the tools to be a successful major league pitcher, whether it’s as a starter or even as an arm out of the bullpen.
“He’s gained a lot of knowledge and experience at a young age,” Dave said. “And he’s a guy that could be a fourth or fifth starter [in a rotation] or a guy that could maybe be a long-reliever or a middle innings guy. He still needs to get more efficient with his pitches and needs to get better fastball command, although he’s been working towards that and it’s been better of late. But, hopefully, he can continue his progress and eventually earn a job with the Orioles by the end of the year.”