There were times last season when the Orioles' Jason Johnson stood on the mound, sweat pouring down his face, and wondered if what he was feeling was normal mid-game fatigue or something more serious. The 27-year-old righthander has had type I diabetes since he was 11, and whenever he suddenly felt tired on the mound, he feared that his blood sugar might be plummeting. Johnson has never had such an episode—often marked by muscle twitches and/or fainting—on the field. Still, the dread of it happening in front of teammates and thousands of fans had begun to play on him more often.
That concern didn't help Johnson as he struggled last season to establish himself as a major league starter. He went 1-10 with a 7.02 ERA, and though he doesn't blame the disease for his performance, diabetes was an unneeded distraction in a year that left his confidence shattered. During the off-season Johnson's wife, Stacey, suggested he try using an insulin pump. The beeper-sized device, which attaches to Johnson's abdomen, maintains his blood-sugar level: If it rises, the required amount of insulin is injected, through a tube fitted under the skin, into his bloodstream to normalize the blood-sugar level. Johnson removes the pump before he takes the mound and reattaches it when he returns to the dugout between innings. "It's a relief to know I don't have to worry about my blood sugar when I'm pitching," he says.
That peace of mind is one reason for Johnson's turnaround this year. Through Sunday he was 10-9 for a Baltimore club that was 54-76, and he had a 3-43 ERA that was fifth best in the American League.
A basketball and baseball star at Conner High in tiny. Hebron, Ky., the 6'6" Johnson in 1992 passed on a hoops scholarship from Morehead State and signed with the Pirates as an undrafted free agent. He kicked around the Pittsburgh system for five seasons (a combined 15-38 record) and then nearly lost his career—and his life—in a December '96 car wreck. Johnson wasn't breathing when rescuers arrived at the scene, but he was revived and found to have a fractured skull. He came back to pitch the '97 season and even made three appearances with the Pirates.
That November, Johnson was taken by the Devil Rays in the expansion draft, and he went 2-5 in 13 starts with Tampa Bay in '98. He was traded to the Orioles before the start of the next season and went 8-7, showing hints of being an effective starter.
After struggling with his control in spring training, Johnson started last season in Triple A Rochester before joining the Orioles in April. He lost his first eight decisions and then bounced between Rochester and Baltimore. By season's end, he says, "I was really depressed."
Believing he was too easily distracted on the mound by the crowd, by hitters' movements and by his illness, Johnson spent the off-season working with a focus coach, who gave Johnson drills to improve his concentration. In spring training, Johnson developed a routine to zero in before each pitch; he focuses on a specific part of the catcher's mitt or shin guard and tunes out everything else. With his thoughts less jumbled, Johnson's command of his pitches—a 93-mph fastball, a sharp curveball and a changeup—has improved dramatically, as has his aggressiveness. In 2000 he gave up 5.1 walks per nine innings. That number is down to 3.1 this year. "He trusts his stuff much more now," says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove.
For Johnson, that's a relaxing thought.