ALDS GAME 1: KEY MOMENT
Orioles closer Jim Johnson entered the American League Division Series against the Yankees with a pretty imposing collection of stats from the 2012 regular season.
In the 54 games he had been called upon to save this season he had a major-league best 51 saves. He also was 2-1 with a 2.49 ERA and he only coughed up three home runs in 68 2/3 innings.
It was against this backdrop that manager Buck Showalter summoned Johnson into a 2-2 contest in the top of the ninth inning in Game 1 of the best-of-five series at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Showalter was doing what most managers do when the home team is in a tie game in the ninth: Call in your closer to pitch a scoreless inning to give them a chance to win it in the bottom of the ninth.
The right-handed Johnson was the perfect choice to pitch the ninth because two of three scheduled batters bat right-handed and Johnson also is known around baseball circles for his devastating two-seam fastball. On a cool, brisk evening like Sunday in Baltimore, hitting Johnson’s sinker is like trying to hit a bowling ball.
Hitters generally hit lots of weak ground balls against Johnson because it is so hard to get any lift on the pitch when it is located down in the strike zone.
The first scheduled hitter for the Yankees was Russell Martin, who was 0-for-2 with a walk in the game. Martin suffered through his worst season at the plate in 2012.
After spending most of the season hitting well below .200, or the so-called “Mendoza line,” Martin caught fire and hit .258 with seven home runs and 17 RBis after Sept. 1 to raise his season average to .211, 49 points below his career average.
Johnson threw his first pitch, a two-seamer, that ended up low.
It must have taken Martin all the strength in the world to lay off Johnson’s second pitch, another two-seamer that was close to the knees but home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo called it a ball.
Catcher Matt Wieters questioned the call without turning around as Johnson emitted a blank stare. Johnson wanted the pitch because he did not want to have to give in by throwing a fastball a bit higher in the strike zone on an 0-2 count.
Johnson also throws a nifty change-up and a curveball, however, Wieters called for a third sinker and Johnson nodded his OK. With many in the paid crowd of 47,841 in the ballpark cheering wildly for a team that had not played in a postseason game since 1997, Johnson went into his windup and threw the ball as Wieters set up his glove low and outside.
However, Johnson’s sinker not only did not sink, it also rode high and right to the middle of the plate. Martin saw the 93-mph fastball was up and swung his bat. Though Martin has been a poor hitter most of the season, there is one pitch he handles exceptionally well: The fastball.
He swung, the ball hit squarely on the sweet spot of the bat and it rocketed into the air on a line into left-field. Oriole left-fielder Nate McLouth, hearing the sound of the bat immediately, started moving back to the wall close to the left-field line. But the trajectory was high enough and the ball was hit hard enough that it carried well above his head and six rows deep in the bleachers.
Martin knew he had hit the ball it well.
“It’s a big lift. It kind of sparked us, it seemed like. A pitcher of that caliber, you’re not expecting to hit home runs against him. I was just trying to hit the ball hard, and luckily he left a pitch over the middle of the plate for me.”
Johnson knew immediately he made a big mistake. He hung his head as he rubbed up a new baseball. The Yankees now led 3-2 and Johnson’s task was to keep the score where it was to give his team a chance to either tie or win it in the bottom of the frame.
But Johnson’s evening fell apart after the Martin blast.
He would throw 14 more pitches in the inning and record only one out.
Raul Ibanez singled. Derek Jeter followed with a hit-and-run single to advance Ibanez to third. With Eduardo Nunez running for Ibanez, Ichiro Suzuki scored him with a swinging bunt down the first-base line that he beat out for a single.
After Johnson struck out Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano sliced a four-seam fastball to the opposite field in the corner in left to score two more runs.
Showalter bounced quickly out to the mound to remove his closer and Johnson left with Cano on third on a throwing error by shortstop J.J. Hardy trying to throw out Suzuki at the plate.
Reliever Tommy Hunter came on and Nick Swisher lifted 3-1 fastball to deep center to score Cano. The Yankees had turned a 2-2 nail-biter into a 7-2 laugher in the blink of an eye.
Johnson gave up five runs on five hits in just one-third of an inning.
On July 16, Johnson was similarly tagged for five runs on four hits and a hit batter by the Twins in a game in Minneapolis. However, the Twins already led the game 14-5 at the time.
On July 27, the Oakland Athletics rallied from a 9-8 deficit against Johnson to score six runs on five hits and a walk in one-third of an inning at Camden Yards to defeat the O’s 14-9. That was Johnson’s only loss of the season.
If you take away those two appearances, Johnson’s season ERA would been 1.02 instead of 2.49.
So the fact that the Yankees even got to Johnson for a run is remarkable. The fact that they scored five runs against him was just unreal.
Yankee first baseman and Maryland native Mark Teixeira summed it up the best:
“Johnson has been so great all year; eventually you’ve got to get to him, right? And tonight was that night.”