Reliever Jim Johnson, here with the Oakland Athletics, will pitch an inning with the Triple A Toledo Mud Hens Friday as he tries to find his way back to the majors with the Detroit Tigers. (Duane Burleson / Getty Images)
Toledo — If there was an answer, the question wouldn’t be asked in the first place. If Jim Johnson, who saved 101 games in the previous two seasons, knew why he suddenly couldn’t get anybody out, he wouldn’t be here pitching for Triple A Toledo.
He doesn’t know. The Oakland A’s, who released him on Aug. 1, didn’t know, either. The Tigers can only hope they'll find out.
Still, the question had to be asked — what has happened to Jim Johnson?
“I don’t know if it’s one thing or another,” Johnson said Friday before being scheduled to pitch an inning for the Mud Hens. “Obviously, I didn’t throw the ball well. Some things kind of compounded on themselves and it just didn’t work out.
“It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I tried to do what I could and as much as I could. But it seemed like the more I tried, the more I sunk down.”
The raw statistics are brutal. He posted an ERA of 7.14 and a WHIP of 2.058 in 38 appearances with the A’s. He gave up 60 hits, 32 earned runs and 23 walks in 40.1 innings. In the month of July, he pitched 5.1 innings, faced 28 hitters and allowed 12 runs and 13 hits.
This from a guy who had an ERA of 2.72 and a WHIP of 1.15 the previous two seasons with the Orioles.
His Mud Hens debut was shaky. He entered a scoreless game against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in the eighth inning Friday and the first pitch threw, to right-hand hitting Cameron Rupp, was laced down the right field line for a double.
He then threw errantly to second base on a sacrifice bunt attempt by former Tiger Clete Thomas. Johnson induced a grounder to short. Hernan Perez threw out Rupp at home for the first out.
But Freddy Galvis, on a 3-2 fastball, lined a double to right center to score two runners.
He got Maikel Franco to ground out for the second out and his night was done. He threw 22 pitches, 15 for strikes. The scoreboard at Fifth Third Field wasn't working, so there were no radar gun readings on his pitches — but afterward, Al Nipper, Mud Hens pitching coach, said Johnson was between 91 and 94 with the fastball, and mostly right around 93.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll have an answer until the end of the season or until some good things start to go my way. Basically it comes down to making good pitches. If you focus on the small stuff like that, usually the rest will take care of itself.”
Asked if his issues were a matter of mechanics, a loss of confidence or both, Johnson went with mechanics.
“There have been some mechanical issues, for sure,” he said. “I’ve been working on trying to find that answer, as well. Obviously there’s a difference about how I feel and how the ball’s been coming out of my hand these last couple of months compared to before, and it’s usually different from one week to the other.
“It’s all about trying to get back in that rhythm and back in that (arm) slot.”
The Tigers clearly believe there is a cure for whatever is ailing Johnson, and they weren’t the only team. Johnson, once he cleared waivers, had several suitors.
“I got a lot of phone calls in the last week or so and I had talks from different people from different organizations,” he said. “It was a unique process to go through. It was a difficult decision to make, but I feel like I made the best decision for myself and my family.”
Why the Tigers?
“Just the organization, the way it’s set up, to try and help them accomplish their goal of winning a World Series and to get back to doing what I am supposed to be doing,” he said.
He is well aware of the Tigers’ bullpen inconsistencies and the Tigers have made it clear to him that he was signed with the hope that he will help now, not later.
After his inning Friday, he will pitch another inning Sunday and then two innings on Wednesday. After that, the Tigers hope he’ll be ready.
“We're not doing it for the long-term," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters on Tuesday. "We have a very little bit of time left in the season, so I think it's more, we're looking at a couple outings and then we'll go from there.
“But we're not signing to have him go to Triple A. We're hopeful that he'll be able to help us here at some point."
Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones observed Johnson’s bullpen session Wednesday in New York.
“I got some fresh eyes on me,” Johnson said. “I threw for him and he didn’t say much. I had 10 pitches left in the session and I looked over and said, ‘Hey, what do you see? Let’s talk.’ He was reminding me of some basic things, balance and head position, basic stuff.
“Nobody is going to come in and say, ‘Here is what you need to do.’ Let me go first. I really need to see some hitters.”
Johnson was throwing at high school fields in California and Florida. He said the reports that he threw for a group of scouts were false.
“I threw once for (former Orioles pitcher and pitching coach) Scott McGregor,” he said. “But I didn’t throw for the Orioles or anybody else.”
What Johnson wants as much as anything is to get back to enjoying the act of playing baseball.
“I just want to get back to pitching and having fun. These past few months have pretty much sucked,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. But I have a good supporting cast at home, good family and friends. I had great teammates in Oakland and in Baltimore and every other team I’ve played for.
“You feel like you are going through it by yourself, but there are a lot of people going through it with you.”
Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky