No matter how things are going, sleep is never a problem for Joe Johnson. It takes his wife, Susan, almost 10 minutes to wake him four hours before his 1:35 start. Toronto will leave for a road trip after the game, so he packed last night. All he has to do is dress and eat and think about the Brewers.
These are shaky times for the 25-year-old pitcher. After a 13-9 season in 1986, his '87 record is 3-5, and he has won only once in 36 days. As he eats breakfast with Susan and 13-month-old son Drew, the decline is on his mind. "I don't think of this as a game I have to win or I get yanked out of the rotation," he says. "I talked to Jimy [Williams, the Blue Jays manager], and he still has confidence in me. I just need to find some consistency, and it's hard because I'm not getting enough innings."
He and Susan leave at 10:40 for the 20-minute drive to the park. Johnson signs a few baseballs, changes clothes and then sets out to watch a videotape of the Brewers. The pitchers have already gone over the Milwaukee scouting report—on Thursday, the first night of the series. "Even though scouting reports are good for picking up little things, they sometimes begin to sound the same," says Johnson. "Every guy on Cleveland, for instance, was a 'first ball, fastball' hitter. I started everyone off with breaking pitches and got hammered. I have to pitch the way I pitch, not just the way they hit. I watched carefully when [Dave] Stieb pitched Thursday. Now I need to find a tape of Milwaukee against a righthander like myself. I like to see two things: Is a hitter susceptible to changeups, and how does he turn on the ball? The videotape helps."
Unfortunately, he can't find one he can use, so at 12:10 he heads for the trainer's room for a 40-minute nap. "Some of my best games come after a good sleep," he says. At 1:05 trainer Tommy Craig gives him a rubdown and applies heat to his elbow. At 1:15 he goes to the bullpen to warm up. "I throw to get loose, then try to air it out the last few pitches," says Johnson. "Every outing is so different. I don't know what to expect until the first pitch."
July 5, 1987
The first pitch is a fastball up and in to Paul Molitor. Ball one. Then comes a fastball on the outside corner for a strike, then two more fast-balls that Molitor fouls off, swinging late. "My stuff is all right," Johnson tells himself, but by the time Molitor grounds out, Johnson has thrown nine pitches. He gets behind on Robin Yount, who hits a single, and on Cecil Cooper, who reaches first on a misplayed grounder. In all, it takes 29 pitches and a great throw from Jesse Barfield in rightfield that nails Cooper at the plate to hold Milwaukee to a single run.
Johnson watches his team's half of the inning on the clubhouse TV. "I like to go up there and think about the hitters I'll face next inning," he says. As he pictures Billy Jo Robidoux, Rick Manning and Jim Gantner, he looks at the monitor and sees Lloyd Moseby trotting around the bases after clubbing a two-run homer.
With his 2-1 lead, Johnson gets through the second inning on 18 pitches, allowing one hit. By the time he goes out for the third, the Blue Jays have made it 4-1, but two consecutive pitches are converted into a Molitor double and a Yount home run. It is 4-3, and Jeff Musselman gets up in the bullpen. When Johnson goes 3 and 0 on Cooper, Williams pops out to the mound.
"Are you all right?" the manager asks.
"I'm fine; I feel great," says Johnson. "I think my stuff's good; I just have to pitch through this and find my consistency."
Johnson gets out of the inning with a couple of line drives and a pop-up and heads for the clubhouse still leading. Williams stops him. "I'm bringing in Musselman to start the fourth," Williams says. "To be honest, your stuff just isn't there."
After three innings, three runs, 63 pitches and a 4-3 lead, Joe Johnson's workday is finished. He has now pitched only 26⅖ innings since May 15. "I have to get the ball down and get ahead of the hitters to win," he says. "But I need innings. When I'm going well, I'm left in to battle through the rough spots, but I keep getting yanked with leads." It is 7-3 after the sixth inning, but that is Musselman's lead, not Johnson's. As the game winds down, Johnson showers and shaves. When Tom Henke gets the final out of the 7-6 win, Johnson greets his teammates. The Yankees have lost in Boston, so the first-place Jays have gained a game in the AL East. "Winning," Johnson thinks, "makes everything fun."
Williams is the first inside the clubhouse. "I want to see you in my office," he says to Johnson. It is not unusual for the manager to call Johnson in for a postgame chat. Williams closes the door and for a minute talks about the game and how he didn't see either the stuff or the consistency that Johnson had used to go 7-2 after coming to the Jays in a trade from Atlanta last July. The manager pauses. "We're sending you to Syracuse so you can get some innings and get yourself straightened out."
In the clubhouse, the press hovers around Musselman—who got the win on his 24th birthday—as well as Moseby, Henke and Barfield. As they talk, the clubhouse radio carries the news of Johnson's demotion. No one seems to notice, except fellow pitcher John Cerutti. "You do care about the other guy," says Cerutti. "But the prime concern is self-survival."
Johnson is back at his locker. "At first it sent shocks through me," he says. "Three or four years ago, I'd have been angry. But who have I got to be angry at? I've got to pitch. I've got to adjust and get the ball down, and the only way I can do it is to pitch some innings."
Several players stop by to say their goodbyes and offer encouragement. "Do what you've got to do, get back and help win us a pennant," says Barfield. At 5:40, Johnson finally finishes dressing. Susan, waiting outside in the hallway, still thinks her husband is bound for Detroit with the others, until an usher tells her: "Your husband was sent to Syracuse."
As Joe comes through the door, dragging his bag behind him, Susan tells him, "That's O.K." They drive out of the parking lot before the team bus can leave them behind. "This is an easy life when you're 7-2," Joe tells Susan. "When you're 3-5 and packing for Syracuse, you learn about yourself. But don't worry. We'll be back."