OAKLAND – Jim Johnson fielded the questions he hoped wouldn’t be coming his way again.
Two appearances in an Oakland A’s uniform have netted the veteran closer two losses and a blown save. The latest debacle came Wednesday night in a 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians that prevented an A’s doubleheader sweep that appeared signed, sealed and delivered.
Johnson had a response for every reporter’s question thrown his way. But clearly, he’s still searching for answers.
“I’m not going to be doing anybody any favors if I hang my head,” Johnson said. “These guys need me. These guys have been playing their butts off. We should be 3-0. Obviously I’ll take the blame. But if I sit there and sulk and pout, it’s not gonna do anybody any good.”
The A’s led Wednesday’s nightcap 4-3 when Johnson entered to start the top of the ninth. They trailed 6-4 when he was replaced by Evan Scribner after just two-thirds of an inning.
This sort of drama plays out often, whether it’s a kicker in football or a closer in baseball. When your mission is to get the job done at the end of a game and you fail, the home fans turn nasty quickly. And it’s hard to reverse that negative wave of energy and get it going the other direction.
One bad night can lead to another, and the frustration and bitterness felt throughout the fan base multiplies exponentially. Johnson felt the wrath from the Coliseum crowd after he gave up two runs Monday in his very first game with his new club. The boos rained down again Wednesday once he gave up singles to his first two hitters. All told, he allowed three hits, two walks (one intentional) and three earned runs.
He exited the field to boos for the second time after manager Bob Melvin pulled him for Scribner.
A’s catcher Derek Norris knows the deal. He knows how popular former A’s closer Grant Balfour was with the home fans. He knows the comparisons between Balfour and Johnson will continue all season long. But he didn’t hide his disappointment that Johnson is taking a verbal beating just three days into the regular season.
“It just sucks the fans are down on him,” Norris said. “Balfour was a fan favorite. I think he’s just put a lot of pressure on his shoulders. … Getting booed off the field is not going to help the situation. I think it’s sad that he has to hear that.”
But it comes with the territory. Johnson, acquired in December from Baltimore for second baseman Jemile Weeks and minor league catcher David Freitas, brought with him a major league-best 101 saves over the past two seasons. He’s also making a $10 million salary and is replacing a very popular player.
The bar is set very high for a player who has posted eye-popping save totals but also blew a major league-worst nine save opportunities last season.
Complicating matters is that, because Johnson threw 29 pitches Wednesday, A's manager Bob Melvin said he might stay away from Johnson on Thursday against Seattle. If a substitute closer steps in and gets the job done in the ninth, it won’t make it any easier the next time Johnson gets his number called.
“It’s been (just) two games,” Melvin said in Johnson’s defense. “We traded for him for a reason. He does have a terrific track record. Obviously he’s off to a slow start.”
Johnson consulted with Norris after the game, and Norris told him he might be pressing too hard, flying open during his delivery and elevating his sinker, which Johnson must keep down in the zone to induce the ground balls so crucial to his success.
He’ll keep searching for answers, knowing all the while he’ll have to earn the respect of his new fan base.
“Something is gonna click,” Johnson said. “That’s how this game works. That’s the way I look at it.”