Orioles closer Jim Johnson hasn't been the same during the 2013 campaign.
Another day, another blown lead.
Or something like that.
After one of the more painful series in recent memory, I would imagine most Baltimore Orioles fans are relieved that the team has an off day on Thursday as it travels back to Baltimore from the heat of Arizona and the scorching hot Arizona Diamondbacks.
Wait...are the D-Backs really "scorching hot?" Or did the Orioles give them three wins?
No, of course the D-Backs are a talented team. They're in a wild-card race, just as the O's are. Even though the O's lost all three games at Chase Field, there was plenty of fight from both sides. Both teams showed that they're good teams. The D-Backs just fought harder, and were ultimately better, for three straight days.
Plenty goes into a loss. Team sports aren't won or lost by one player.
During the three-game set, the O's starters were pretty solid. They could have given the team more innings (namely Scott Feldman, though Miguel Gonzalez went seven strong on Tuesday), but overall they gave up just six runs (five earned) over 18.1 innings.
The main problems were a continually underperforming Orioles offense, and even more so a bullpen that seems to enjoy imploding.
The team scored only 13 runs in the series, but it led after six innings in all three games. In the first game, the O's were down by one in the eighth only to have Chris Davis tie it. The bullpen gave the D-Backs back the lead in the bottom half of the eighth. The O's tied it with some gritty at-bats in the ninth. First pitch in the bottom half of the ninth, the D-Backs managed a walk-off homer.
In the second and third games, struggling closer Jim Johnson (J.J.) blew save opportunities, giving him three consecutive blown saves and nine total ones on the year.
The Orioles obviously aren't converting late-inning leads like they did in 2012. The team is feeling it, as the O's are six games back of the first-place Boston Red Sox and three games out of a wild-card spot.
If Johnson successfully converts even four of his nine blown saves, it's a much different story in the standings. The wild-card race would be much tighter with the O's occupying a spot, and they'd be just two games back of the Red Sox.
Should Jim Johnson be removed from the closer role?
What's more, these blown-lead losses are demoralizing the fanbase, as I am now seeing many comments on blogs such as the ones on MASNsports.com calling for the heads of manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette, and the struggles of the season are being blamed on owner Peter Angelos.
Those are comments that I haven't read since the losing ways of 2011 and prior, and frankly, it shames me that they're returning because a winning team is facing some struggles. These are the men, along with former GM Andy MacPhail, responsible for turning this franchise around after all.
Regardless, the fans are allowed to be upset and voice their opinions. Many fans seem to feel that Johnson isn't fit to remain as the team's closer, and I can't say I disagree.
However, where does the team turn? To Tommy Hunter, who has good numbers but is prone to giving up the clutch home run? To Francisco Rodriguez, a former ace closer and current home run headcase after the O's acquired him from the Milwaukee Brewers?
The best single-man replacement would probably be setup man Darren O'Day, who has put up great numbers for the O's for the second season in a row now (2.45 ERA this year) but did give up the walk-off blast in Monday's loss.
This writer feels as though a closer-by-committee approach may be best for now, until further notice. Go with the hot hand, and if a guy pitched well in the eighth, then let him return for the ninth.
Johnson not only seems beaten in the way that his stuff isn't as sharp as in years past, but also mentally, where so much of the game of baseball is played. He needs time to straighten himself out in low-pressure situations.
For all we know, a closer by committee could end with similar results as what Johnson has turned in this season. But something has to change, right now, before the season is too far lost.
I'm as big of a believer in Johnson's stuff and abilities as anyone, but enough is enough, and it's getting to the point where I'm starting to worry he may be going through the same thing that former MLB closer Brad Lidge went through after giving up a playoff home run to Albert Pujols. Johnson did, after all, have a fairly rough postseason in 2012.
The bottom line is that while the starting pitching could go deeper and the offense could score more runs, the bullpen could close out more games. And right now, the bullpen (namely J.J.) seems to be costing the team more wins than the offense and/or starters are.
Maybe just a simple bullpen shake-up will help to fix things. Maybe players need to be replaced.
One thing is for sure, though: Something has to be done. Now. Or the Birds are golfing in October.