MINNEAPOLIS — Steve Johnson might have been the best feel-good story in an Orioles season filled with them last year.
The local boy, St. Paul's graduate and son of a former Oriole stormed onto the big league stage and won all four of his decisions, providing a huge boost during a pennant push.
His 2013 hasn't been as smooth. It was delayed for weeks by a lat injury and, when he returned to the big leagues Saturday, he lasted just four innings in the Orioles' 8-5 loss to the Minnesota Twins before an announced 32,221 at Target Field.
After the game, Johnson was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for an extra bullpen arm, if needed, on Sunday. He won't be able to return for at least 10 days unless someone on the current 25-man roster is injured.
It didn't help Johnson's cause that he was dealing with temperatures in the 40s and a swirling wind that was clocked at 25 mph — not exactly prime pitching weather.
“He started off really well. It's a raw night. I just don't think he had a really good feel for his breaking ball,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It was a tough night to pitch. But he won't use that as an excuse. He's capable of better. And he showed us what he's capable of. He just couldn't maintain it.”
In his four starts with the Orioles last season, Johnson went at least five innings, never walked more than three and allowed a combined seven earned runs. On Saturday, he gave up six earned runs on seven hits and four walks (one intentional) while striking out three.
“I just kind of lost it,” said Johnson, who threw two scoreless innings before giving up two runs in the third and four in the fourth. “I could have thrown a couple different pitches. You can always look back and second-guess yourself. But I didn't really have it today and didn't really feel that great. I did the best I could, but it wasn't good enough today and I need to do better.”
Showalter admitted after the game — and before Johnson's demotion was announced — that the Orioles were considering adding a reliever from Triple-A Norfolk for Sunday's game. There's a 5:30 a.m. flight out of Syracuse that would land in Minneapolis by 10:30 this morning.
“We're not going to be short [in the bullpen]. I can tell you that,” Showalter said. “We're not going to assume anything with Wei-Yin [Chen], especially with the conditions that we're playing in.”
The Tides bullpen has been pretty strong, so there are several candidates to choose from including right-handers Adam Russell and Jair Jurrjens (who is scheduled to start Monday) and lefties Daniel Schlereth, Mark Hendrickson and Mike Belfiore, who is the only member of that group on the 40-man roster. Because Brian Roberts can easily be moved to the 60-day disabled list, however, the Orioles could choose a non-40-man pitcher.
Showalter said he'd like to have a right-hander who can pitch multiple innings behind Chen, a lefty.
Saturday's loss means the Orioles (22-15) and Twins (17-16) will play a series rubber match today — which also serves as the season finale between the clubs. The Orioles have won eight of their previous 11 series this season, but one of the losses was to the Twins at Camden Yards in April. The Twins currently lead the season series 3-2.
“It's going to be a big game. You want to take every series and they got us earlier this year,” said Orioles second baseman Ryan Flaherty, who was hit in the right hand with a pitch in the sixth inning, but said he is fine. “It is going to be a good game.”
Before Johnson ran into trouble in the third inning, the Orioles looked like they were on their way to another series victory.
They quickly jumped on Twins right-hander Vance Worley (1-4) in the first. Manny Machado started a three-run rally with a one-out double, one of his three hits on the evening. The 20-year-old third baseman has had multiple hits in 11 of his past 18 games.
Machado scored on a RBI single by Nick Markakis, who scored on a single by Chris Davis. The third run of the first came home on a sacrifice fly by catcher Matt Wieters. Staked to a 3-0 lead, Johnson did something he had never previously done in his brief big league career: Allowed a hit with a runner in scoring position.
Last season, the opposition was 0-for-20 against the rookie right-hander with runners in scoring position — the longest such streak to start a career since Atlanta's Larry Bradford (1977 to 1979), according to Stats Inc., whose complete play-by-play records go back to 1974.
Johnson extended it to 21 batters in the third inning before Joe Mauer doubled home Eduardo Escobar from second base. It was Mauer's 600th RBI of his career. Johnson gave up another hit with Mauer on second — an RBI single to Justin Morneau to make it 3-2.
The Orioles struck back on Wieters' fifth homer of the season, a solo shot to left in the fourth. But Johnson (0-1) surrendered the lead in the four-run fourth, and kicked himself afterward.
“I thought I started off all right and just couldn't make a pitch to get out of that inning,” Johnson said. “It's unfortunate when the team gives you that lead they gave you to not be able to make a pitch and limit the damage. It's not good.”
The Orioles scored once more against Worley (1-4), who picked up his first win as a Twin despite giving up five runs in 5 1/3 innings. The Twins again answered in their half of the sixth with Ryan Doumit's two-run homer against Troy Patton.
Now the two teams will face off on Mother's Day with a series win on the line.
“We are excited to go out there and try to win another series,” Wieters said. “And hopefully win it for all the moms out there in Baltimore.”