The Jim Johnson Game

One of my all-time favorite games is from May 13, 2008, a game Tim and I know simply as "The Jim Johnson Game".  With the Red Sox in town for their first series of 2013 in Baltimore this weekend and most Orioles fans in their perpetual state of hand-wringing, I figured this would be an appropriate time to write about a game I have long wanted to discuss.


Baseball’s best moments tend to occur when the unexpected happens.  I am not sure if anything in baseball should be considered unexpected, especially on a game to game basis.  There are just too much variables involved within a game and season.  The reality is that the television networks and baseball organizations need to sell the public on tuning into a game or coming out to the ball park.  To accomplish that, they weave narratives and tell stories.  Certain good teams become very good in the spun tale.  Certain bad teams become outright terrible.  Every team (every player) needs to fit snugly into the puzzle.

The Boston Red Sox did not demonstrate unprecedented dominance over the Baltimore Orioles during the 2000’s.  Boston simply had good teams during that decade while Baltimore teams largely floundered.  The Red Sox’s .630 winning percentage versus the Orioles from 2004 through 2007 is about the winning percentage analysts would expect a team who won two World Series and 95+ games three times to have against a team that won between 69 & 78 games during that same span.  There was no otherworldly domination going on here – just a good club beating a weaker club at an expected rate.  The Orioles actually fared worse against several clubs – Oakland, Minnesota, Anaheim – during the same period but it was the Red Sox (and Yankees) handling of the Orioles that became the narrative.  The reality was that the Orioles were a weak team that lost a lot of games to strong teams and Boston was a strong team.

So the narrative was set.  In the eyes of Red Sox fans, Orioles fans and baseball fans at large, this rivalry was an entirely one-sided affair unlike anything else.  Maybe it was the fact that Boston routinely pummeled the O’s in Baltimore.  The O’s 12-25 record against the Red Sox at Camden Yards between 2004 and 2007 works out to a .325 winning percentage – the worst home record for the Orioles against any team during that time.  Maybe it was the fact that those home games felt like away games since flocks of overeager Red Sox fans flooded Camden Yards and took over.  It was likely a combination of both of those things – and more – that gave the Baltimore/Boston match up such a lopsided feeling.

Regardless of the actual reasons, the perception was that the Orioles were an afterthought at best versus Boston.  They were the Washington Generals to the Red Sox’ Harlem Globetrotters.


I don’t want any sympathy – you can put your tiny violins back in their tiny cases – but it was not easy being an Orioles fan in 2008 and living with a constant fear of impending doom.  On May 14th, 2008, the Orioles led the Red Sox by a score of 5-3 in the seventh inning.  I should have felt good about the lead.  I should have been happy.  I wasn’t.  It was impossible to shake the feeling that the lead would be fleeting.  A little voice inside my head kept telling me “there are still three innings to go . . . don’t get excited yet.”  I started to see the little signs of impending doom; the signals that the game was about to head in the wrong direction.

If there was a little voice in my head causing me to worry, there were 20,000 voices outside of it that were also causing me to be uptight.  The game was not quite a sellout – it was a Tuesday evening after all – but it would be fair to say that somewhere around 20,000 of the 38,768 at Camden Yards that evening were Red Sox fans.  They knew the narrative as well as I did.  They knew that the Orioles' lead was far from safe and a collapse was right around the corner.  They were already stirring and one run – or one hit – would send them into a frenzy.  That’s the way these Red Sox and Orioles games had gone as of late.  That’s the way we started to believe these things would always go.


In Boston, they refer to the game on May 13, 2007 as the “Mother’s Day Miracle”.

In Baltimore, we refer to it as the “Mother’s Day Massacre”.

That Mother’s Day afternoon, the Orioles scored two first-inning runs off of Boston's ace, Josh Beckett.  The offense went silent for a few innings before adding tack-on runs in the 5th, 7th, and 8th innings.  All the meanwhile, Jeremy Guthrie pitched a masterpiece.  He held a powerful Red Sox offense to three hits and one walk over the first eight innings.  He had silenced Fenway Park.

Guthrie – his pitch count low – returned to the mound or the 9th inning.  Guthrie induced future Oriole Julio Lugo to ground out.  Jeremy got the next batter to pop up in front of home plate, but catcher Ramon Hernandez misplayed the ball and it fell in for an error.  Guthrie had not done anything wrong but O’s manager Sam Perlozzo panicked.  He removed Guthrie from the game after only 91 pitches and called for right-handed reliever Danys Baez.

That is when the wheels came off.

Baez fell behind David Ortiz 1-0 before Ortiz hit a double to drive in Coco Crisp.  Baez went 2-0 on Willy Mo Pena before he singled.  Perlozzo went to the mound again, this time summoning the Birds' young and jitter-prone closer, Chris Ray.  Ray walked J.D. Drew to load the bases on 3-2 count.  He did the same to Kevin Youkilis, which plated Boston’s second run of the game.  Ray did not run the count full to Jason Varitek – he simply threw him a 1-0 fastball that the catcher crushed for a two-run double.  Just like that, the score was 5-4.

Impending doom.

Ray intentionally walked Eric Hinske to create a force out situation.  The plan worked out as Ray induced a groundball to second base and the O’s got the force out at home.  With two outs, the Orioles were one out away from getting out of the inning.  Lugo – who grounded out to start the inning – made his second appearance of the 9th.  Lugo made weak contact – as if he was capable of making any other kind of contact – and grounded the ball to 1B.  Kevin Millar ranged to his right and fielded the ball.  His throw to Ray covering first sailed high.  Jason Varitek scored.  Hinske never stopped running and scored as well.

Doom.


The Mother’s Day Massacre and games like it were fresh in the minds of every at Camden Yards on May 13th, 2008. Sure, the Orioles held the lead now.  But we had come to know that now meant little in the grand scheme of things when it came to Orioles/Red Sox games.

As fate would have it, here we were exactly one year to the date of the unfathomable events of the Mother’s Day Massacre.  Jeremy Guthrie was back on the mound for the Birds in this game, just as he had been one year earlier.

Jeremy was not nearly as dominate but he bounced back from a rough start to the game and cruised through the middle innings with a 5-3 lead.  Guthrie opened up the 7th by giving up back-to-back single to Sean Casey and Dustin Pedroia.  By the time of this game, Perlozzo was long gone, having been fired in the middle of the 2007 season.  His replacement, Dave Trembley, came to the mound to get Guthrie.  There was not much controversy in relieving Guthrie this year.  He had thrown 115 pitches and was clearly tiring.

Just because the move to take out Guthrie was the correct one does not mean it did not cause its fair share of anxiety.  The Orioles had a perennially shaky bullpen.  Worse yet, the manager summoned in lefty specialist Jaime Walker.  The batter was David Ortiz – a lefty.  Trembley was managing by the book – a left-handed pitcher generally matches up well against left-handed batters.  Only someone forgot to tell Trembley that Ortiz entered the game 7 for 16 versus Walker with three homeruns.

Oops.

We knew that Walker struggled against Ortiz.  It was odd for a lefty-specialist to struggle so mightily against any left-handed batter so television announcers made frequent mention of it.  Walker probably knew his struggles as well.  After getting ahead 1-2, Walker tried to be perfect.  First he bounced a pitch which allowed the runners to advance to second and third.  With first base now open, Walker stayed away from Ortiz and walked him.  Walker failed to do his only job and was out of the game.

If you were in the stadium that night and did not feel the game slipping away from the Orioles, you simply had not been paying attention.

Into the game came a 25 year-old long reliever making his 13th appearance of the season and just his 15th appearance of his career with the game hanging in the balance.


Jim Johnson – as his name might suggest – is an unassuming player and person.  The Orioles drafted him in the 5th round of the 2001 amateur player draft out of high school.  Johnson performed well in the lower minor leagues, but did nothing to garner the kind of local and national attention that true superstar prospect pitchers receive.  After a season at class A+ Frederick in 2005 when he won 12 games and struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings, Johnson was named the Orioles organization minor league pitcher of the year.  It was at best a hollow achievement – the Orioles system was barren of any and all pitching prospects – so the mediocre Johnson won the award by default more than anything else.

In 2006, Johnson made a spot start for the Orioles, reaching the majors for the first time at the age of 23.  He was over matched by the Chicago White Sox.  Johnson gave up nine hits, three walks, and eight runs in just three innings of work.  He went back to the minors where he continued to perform like a mediocre starter at AA Bowie.  It was more of the same in 2007 at AAA Norfolk.

Near the start of the 2008 season, the Orioles needed a reliever.  Like in 2005 when he won the organizational minor league pitcher of the year award, Johnson was the best of exceedingly poor or mediocre options the Birds had.  He was called up and placed in the bullpen as a long man.

Jim took well to his new role and provided Baltimore with a very solid multi-inning bullpen option.  Through games on May 12th, Johnson allowed only 2 earned runs in 19 innings of work.  In his last five outings, Johnson had earned his way up through the bullpen ranks to the 8th inning set up man position. 

It was quite the meteoric rise, but at the same time, it was not as if the O’s had many other options. Johnson once again found himself in a position almost by default and the jury was still out whether he would be up to the task.


A month earlier, Johnson was a mediocre minor league starter at the crossroads of his professional career.  Now he was staring down the barrel of the gun at one of the league’s best hitters – Manny Ramirez.

If Johnson felt any nerves at all – and how could he not? – it probably goes without saying that there were 10,000 or so equally nervous Orioles fans in the stands.  The script was clear at this juncture.  With nobody out and the bases loaded, the Red Sox would at the very least tie the game against the untested rookie.  At worst, they would take a commanding lead.  In any event, we appeared to be heading towards the obvious outcome – another Orioles loss to Boston.

I try to remain optimistic at Orioles games.  I am not sure if it is a coping device or simply unbridled optimism but I’d rather not spend my time at the ball park dreading oncoming defeat.  Now that the Orioles have been a team for the past season and a half, remaining positive at an O’s game has become a much easier task.  It was far less simple back in 2008 – especially when one had to deal with a swarm of Red Sox fans whose mere presence served to remind everyone Orioles fan of the futility of their own team.


I’ve written about Red Sox fans at Camden Yards before, so I am not going to venture all the way down that road again.

2008 was the height of their Camden Yards invasion.  Two weeks after the game on May 13th, the Red Sox arrived in Baltimore for their first weekend series of the year, which meant it was the first time that summer that many of their fans made the trek to Baltimore from wherever it is they come from.  On Friday night of that series, some Red Sox fans unfurled a 2007 World Series Champions banner in lower left field.  On Saturday night Manny Ramirez hit his 500th homerun to an ovation so overwhelming you would have thought we were in Boston.  On Sunday I went to the game alone and had one of the least-enjoyable afternoons I have had at a ball game while in the presence of 35,000 Red Sox fans.

On May 13th, they numbered less than they would a couple of weeks later but they were no less annoying.

Tim and I sat in front of a family all in Red Sox gear.  The father arrogantly, with no awareness of his surroundings, informed his young children that the Orioles stink and the Red Sox always beat them.  All around us were green, red, blue, and pink hat wearing Red Sox fans starting chants whenever they felt like it and generally having their run of the park.

Thankfully, it was also Ollie’s Bargain Night and a few hundred drunk college students sitting upper deck behind home plate helped turn the tide a little in favor of the home team.  The Orioles solid play through the first seven innings kept the choruses of “Let’s Go Red Sox” to a hush as well.  Their fans were waiting – as were Oriole fans deep down – for the tide to turn.

Well, if it hadn’t turned it was certainly churning.  With the bases loaded, nobody out, and their vaunted slugger at the plate, the Red Sox fans started to stir.  They pulled out all their familiar calling cards – the chants, the looking at and clapping in Orioles’ fans faces, the name calling . . . it all came out in a flurry.

Everyone rose to their feet.  Everyone – no matter which side they were on – knew this was essentially the game.  All the momentum was on the line. Red Sox fans felt the tide turning in their favor.  Baltimore fans held on for dear life.


There is zero chance Jim Johnson had the game from one year earlier on his mind when he stepped to the mound.  Johnson was not even present for that game – he was in Charlotte as a member of the Norfolk Tides – but I am not sure that would have made a difference even if he were present.  As Orioles fans would come to appreciate, Johnson is stoic and business like – good qualities for a relief pitcher.  It is doubtful he would have filled his head with thoughts about a year old game.

Nonetheless, Johnson showed immediately that he would not make the same mistakes that the Danys Baez and Chris Rays of the world made in 2007.  He was going to go right after the batters.

Johnson threw Ramirez a first pitch fastball.  Manny took a hearty cut on it but swung through.  The whole stadium gasped.  Red Sox fans inhaled because the mighty swing could have surely given Boston the lead if only he had made contact.  Orioles fans allowed themselves a deep breath at the welcomed sight of seeing an Orioles reliever challenge a Red Sox slugger head on and win.

The first pitch made it clear that Manny was looking to swing and swing hard.  He was paid to drive in runs and this was clearly an opportunity to do so.

Johnson used the slugger’s aggressiveness to his own advantage.  He threw another strike and Ramirez fouled this one off.

Jim Johnson could strike minor league batters out as a starter.  He averaged over nine strikeouts per innings before reaching the major leagues.  He has been less successful at striking batters out once called up to Baltimore.  His lack of strikeouts led some to believe that his success as a major leaguer reliever might be fleeting.  A relief pitcher who doesn’t strike out many batters leaves himself open to being hurt by balls in play finding holes, poor defense, or bad bounces.  Johnson’s early statistics suggested that he was bound to let up more runs than he had thus far.

Ahead 0-2, Johnson was about to become embroiled in a battle with Ramirez.

Johnson alternated ball-foul-ball-foul over the next four pitches.  Manny had the count back to a more favorable position at 2-2.  Even more worrisome was that each foul ball served as another opportunity for him to time Johnson’s offerings.  Each foul ball also served to raise the drama at OPACY.  Each pitch gave the Red Sox fans more confidence that their best hitter was going to come through.  Every foul ball provided a momentarily second of relief for the battle-scared O’s fans.

So of course with the drama mounting Johnson proceeded to throw three straight pitches that Ramirez fouled off.  At the risk of going all hyperbolic on everyone, it really felt like one could feel the drama and tension rising in the air.  It was a heck of a battle.

At this juncture, not a fan was sitting down.  Both sides attempted to will their pick in this battle onto victory.

Johnson relied on his two-seam fastball throughout this at bat, just as he had done his entire stint in the big leagues.  When he was on, the fastball rode down hard on hitters forcing them to weakly pound the ball into the ground more often than not.  The pitch reached the mid to upper 90’s which meant it had velocity and movement going for it.  Johnson had stuck with it against Manny and at least so far he had been unable to completely get around on it.

Johnson reared back and delivered the pitch.  Everyone knew what was coming – the two-seam fastball.

Manny took a mighty hack once again and once again I am pretty sure I stopped breathing as the ball made contact with the bat.

You know in the movies – especially sports films – how they go slow motion at a pivotal moment to hammer home how critical every second and every movement is?  This is as close as I have ever felt to that happening in real life.

At the point the ball made contact with the bat, it was like the entire stadium gasped.  Or maybe it was just me.  I looked down and there was the ball, bouncing harmlessly back towards the pitcher’s mound in front of home plate.  By the time my brain processed what was going on, Johnson had made his way off of the mound and fielded the ball.  The home team fans – cautiously – began to cheer.

Johnson fielded the ball and threw it to the catcher, Guillermo Quiroz.  Quiroz caught the ball for the out at the plate.  The O’s fans got louder.  At that juncture, Johnson had officially won the battle.  He had kept the run from scoring and for the time being, maintained the O’s two-run lead.

The play wasn’t over yet even if one battle was already won.  A real buzz made its way through the park as if the fans collectively came to the realization that the Orioles actually had a chance to turn a double play.  The reaction built the entire time going from a low murmur when the ball was put into play to a louder hum as Johnson recorded the first out.  When Quiroz turned and fired towards first base, the sound reached a fever pitch.  When the ball was caught at first base and the umpire signaled for the out, there was an explosion of noise.

It was the most welcomed double play I’ve ever saw.


There was nothing expected about that double play.

The bases were loaded.  There were no outs.  The Orioles were into their unreliable bullpen.  A rookie was in the game for Baltimore.  Boston’s most feared hitter – a player sitting on 499 career home runs – was at the plate.  It was the Red Sox versus Orioles in 2008.

The only way things could have looked worse for the Orioles is if they were playing with six fielders or something.  It is not inaccurate to suggest that game was one that the Orioles lose 9 times out of 10 versus the Red Sox between 2002 and 2010.  In Major League Baseball, something that occurs nine times out of ten might as well be considered a sure lock.

The inning was  far from over, even after the double play.  With runners on second and third the Red Sox were still one single away from tying the game.  The odds were lower and – if there is such a thing in baseball – the momentum had shifted the Orioles way.  Mike Lowell harmlessly popped out to end the inning.

Johnson stamped an exclamation point on just how miraculous of an escape he performed in the 7th by struggling to get through the 8th inning.  High leverage double plays aside, these were still the 2008 Red Sox versus the 2008 Orioles.  Johnson allowed back-to-back one out walks and then a single to Joey Cora brought the Sox within one.  The Birds’ closer George Sherrill was summoned and managed to escape the 8th without any further damage.  Sherrill made quick work of Boston in the 9th and David Ortiz – ever the gracious loser – got himself tossed after striking out to the start the inning.

There were two elements that made the game a memorable one.

The first was the unexpected this of the outcome.  As I wrote above, seemingly everything was pointing in favor of a Red Sox comeback in the 7th inning.  Perhaps Orioles fans were a bit paranoid and always expecting the worse, but there was little to indicate that the bases loaded and nobody out situation was going to end well because in recent history, it rarely did.  For the O’s to escape the jam and come away with the win – one year to the date after a monumental collapse scared Baltimore fans for years to come – was quite remarkable.

The second was the cathartic-like experience of witnessing the events in the midst of a sea of Red Sox fans.  There weren’t many chances in those days to high five fellow O’s fans and smugly grin at sullen Red Sox fans.  In the six years prior to that where I was attending at least one Red Sox-Orioles game per season, I am not sure I ever even got to experience the joy of leaving the stadium with a win.  So yea, the game was great because it made Red Sox fans unhappy and made me as an Oriole fan downright giddy to see them that way.  I don’t think that makes me a bad person; I think that makes me a normal sports fan.


The Orioles are a better organization now.  With a playoff appearance in 2012 and a solid start to the 2013 season, the hopelessness and anxiety of those days from 2008 is largely evaporating.  I’ve wanted to write about this game for a while and thought that now was as apropos as any.

The O’s and Red Sox are currently in the midst of a four game series that holds some fairly hefty ramifications considering it is June 14th.  Boston is 2 ½ games ahead of Baltimore in the AL East and a lopsided series in either team’s favor could substantially shift the division standings.

Mostly I wanted to write about this game now because it is a reminder of where the team was not so long ago and how seemingly simple – but unexpected – results can be met with such enthusiasm.  The 2013 Orioles have expectations attached to them that the 2008 club did not.  That’s generally a good thing but it shouldn’t overwhelm the fans’ ability to enjoy wins (unexpected or otherwise).  It seems like with the heightened expectations comes such a critical approach to the organization to the point that some are unable or unwilling to fully enjoy the ride.

Baseball is about enjoying the moments – little or big, expected or unexpected – whether it is a playoff victory or a double play in another wise meaningless May game.