Opening Day memories: The time Jim Johnson lost A’s fans in 17 pitches

Jim Johnson entered 2014 as the new closer of an A’s team with back-to-back division titles and abundant reason for optimism.

He had racked up 101 saves and pitched to a 2.72 ERA over the previous two seasons with the Orioles. He joined a franchise with a long tradition of ninth-inning hurlers finding the best forms of their careers.

Johnson lost Oakland’s fan base in a matter of 17 pitches in a season-opening home loss to the Indians.

His meltdown prompted rare boos from a usually understanding Coliseum crowd and sent him into a bizarre tailspin from which he would never entirely recover. It was probably the strangest Opening Day sight I’ve experienced.

Perhaps fans should have seen Johnson’s struggles coming. His final spring exhibition outing was shaky — he gave up three hits and a run on 20 ninth-inning pitches against the Giants. He didn’t look at all comfortable on the mound in that contest.

But his effort in San Francisco was low-stakes. Given his track record, the expectation was that he would bounce back quickly.

Johnson immediately ran into trouble on the bump in his regular season debut against Indians, however, and the vibe in Oakland shifted against him.

After entering a scoreless game in the ninth inning, he threw five of his first six pitches out of the strike zone. His seventh pitch was singled to right field by David Murphy to place runners at the corners with no outs. That’s about when the crowd grumbling began. Boos scattered when Johnson hit the next batter. 

A sacrifice fly and RBI single prompted manager Bob Melvin to pull Johnson from the contest.

While the outing was certainly bad, it was somewhat surprising to hear such an angry reception for Johnson considering how good the A’s had been over the previous two seasons and how rare it is for fans in Oakland to turn on the club. The loss shouldn’t have been a shock — it marked the 10th straight season-opening defeat for the A’s.

He tried to remain positive following the poor showing.

“I would have booed me, too,” Johnson told reporters afterward. “I sucked tonight. I deserved it. Next time they’ll probably be cheering.”

They were not cheering the next time. In his second home outing, which came two days later, Johnson entered with a 4-3 lead and left with a blown save, having surrendered three runs on three hits and two walks.

There were few calm stretches for Johnson in green and gold. When the A’s finally cut him in July, he had allowed at least two runs in nine different appearances. His ERA was 7.14.

He posted a 6.92 ERA the rest of the season with the Tigers, then bounced among the Braves, Dodgers and Angels. He never neared the quality he offered Baltimore.

Relief pitchers are always susceptible to sharp drop-offs in performance level. Few implode quite like Johnson at the start of 2014. 

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