BALTIMORE -- Does Orioles manager Buck Showalter still believe Jim Johnson is his team's best closer?
"Yeah. I think we have a lot of options, and he's one of them," Showalter said of Johnson, who blew his third straight save opportunity in Arizona on Wednesday and now has a Major League-high nine blown saves this season. "We're lucky to have all those options."
Johnson again struggled in Friday's 6-3 loss to Colorado, allowing a solo home run to Todd Helton in the ninth inning. Johnson retired the other three batters he faced, but he has now allowed home runs in two of his last three outings.
If Showalter doesn't go to Johnson in the ninth inning, he has the benefit of having experience in his 'pen, with former closer Francisco Rodriguez (who left Friday's game with a right groin strain) an option, as well as fellow late-inning righties Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day. Lefty Brian Matusz could also see time in the ninth depending on the matchup.
Johnson, who set a club record with 35 consecutive saves earlier this season -- dating back to 2012 -- hasn't looked nearly as crisp as last year's All-Star form. He has a Major League-leading 39 saves, and is 3-7 with a 3.62 ERA in 58 outings.
When asked where his confidence level is, Johnson said it's right where he needs it to be, although Showalter -- pressed as to whether the right-hander needs a few days off following Thursday's off day -- left the door open in terms of whether he will go to Johnson in the next save situation or give him some time off.
"There's some merit to different things of that [nature]," said Showalter, who could employ a closer-by-committe situation based on matchups for the immediate future. "Depends on how I frame it … there's some things we've discussed. I've had conversations. And if we decided to do that, it's not going to be some big announcement. It'll be something I talk to people about. And fortunately you'll probably know about it when the [bullpen] gate opens."
The case of Johnson, who was an All-Star last season, is a puzzling one. He converted 10 straight saves prior to this stretch and had been the model of consistency for an exceptional Orioles bullpen until hitting a rough stretch -- in which he blew four of five save chances -- in May. Johnson said he doesn't think his recent outings have been about command, and said Friday he felt he made some good pitches in Arizona.
"I don't think it's a question of mixing it up as much," Johnson said. "Earlier, it was a matter of location. I don't think that's the issue [recently]. I've been making good quality pitches and just haven't seen the results.
"I know what my strengths are as pitcher. My strengths are pitching to contact. I'm not going to try to go out and strike everybody out, because that's going to put me in worse situations. So I need to trust the process of what I do and stay true to who I am."
"I know the finality of it, and I know the questions should, and need to be, asked," Showalter said of Johnson. "And it's frustrating for Jimmy and me. Not frustrated with him, but frustrated for him. There's some things we haven't done in other innings, too, but I understand the finality of that inning."
K-Rod leaves game with right groin strain
BALTIMORE -- Orioles reliever Francisco Rodriguez exited in the eighth inning of Friday's 6-3 loss to the Rockies with a right groin strain and is considered day to day.
After retiring the final two batters of the seventh inning, Rodriguez served up a solo leadoff homer to Charlie Blackmon -- that landed on Eutaw Street -- to start the eighth and a follow-up single by Dexter Fowler prompted a second visit from head athletic trainer Richie Bancells. Rodriguez left the game after that, limping as he gingerly headed to the home clubhouse.
"It didn't start today," said Rodriguez, who didn't think the injury would require a trip to the disabled list. "It's been the last week, kind of grabbing a little bit. A little soreness. And today was a little worse. Just come in tomorrow, get some treatment and wrap it up and go get 'em. I'll be all right."
The injury is the latest blow to an Orioles bullpen that has had its fair share of struggles lately. With closer Jim Johnson -- who allowed a homer to Todd Helton on Friday -- blowing his last three save opportunities, Rodriguez is a candidate to take over some of the ninth-inning duties.
The O's will back off Rodriguez for at least one game and manager Buck Showalter said after the game that the club optioned designated hitter Henry Urrutia to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for another reliever, who they will add before Saturday's game.
The rookie Urrutia, who made his Major League debut on July 20, hit .269/.269/.308 in 21 games with the big league club.
Acquired in trade with Milwaukee last month, Rodriguez has pitched to a 4.66 ERA in 10 games with the O's, allowing five earned runs on eight hits and two walks in 9 2/3 innings. The veteran said part of the grind in a 162-game season is learning the difference between an injury and soreness, and Friday's issue was more of the latter.
"It's going to take more than that to take me out of there," Rodriguez said of going on the DL. "I will just come in, get my treatment and go out there and get the job done."
"He had it before, he said, in 2011. Felt very similar, and he was able to pitch through it," Showalter said. "Just wrapped it a little better. Hopefully, we can get lucky with it."
Orioles on board with expanded replay
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles joined the popular sentiment around baseball on Friday, voicing their approval of the plan to impose expanded instant replay beginning in the 2014 season.
"It's kind of like the Wild Card and different things, by gosh, why didn't we do this before?" manager Buck Showalter said of the proposed changes, which include replays for nearly everything except balls and strikes. "I think that's what we'll see. I know Joe Torre and Tony La Russa and people who've worked with them have put a lot of time in. I know talking to us as a coaching staff, we've had input the past couple of springs. I knew the capability they had. They can take it as far as you want to take it. When you have to watch a replay three times to see if it's right or wrong, it shows you the challenge they have. I can't imagine a harder sport to umpire or officiate."
The owners of every Major League Baseball club will formally vote on the issue at their next meetings in Orlando, Fla., in November. And the changes must also be negotiated with both the Major League Baseball Players Association and the World Umpires Association, although the use of review for fair-foul and trap plays was incorporated into the most recent Basic Agreement.
"Being part of the players union, you definitely got to put it up to a vote, I think it's going to expand the games a little bit longer, but if they can get calls in crucial situations right, I think that's what we all want," said center fielder Adam Jones. "Me, I'm a person who just always thought baseball was human error anyway. But I think how technology has advanced, people want the calls right nowadays. So, whatever they are trying to do to help out the game, I'm for it."
"I sit out there in the field and talk to umpires all the time, and they don't want to be embarrassed. They are not trying to make bad calls, I think most of them are in favor of getting it right," said second baseman Brian Roberts. "Now with all the media coverage that's out there, every bad call they make, they get hammered for it. And I don't think that's necessarily fair. The game is fast, the game is getting even faster, and to be able to make every call right is darn near impossible. But there's so much riding on those calls that, why wouldn't we allow them to get it right as best as we can?"
One of the highlights of the new system is that a review will be initiated when a manager informs the umpire that he wants to challenge a play. He will be allowed one challenge in the first six innings and two more from the seventh through the end of the game. If the manager wins his appeal, he retains the challenge, although the challenge from the first six innings does not carry over.
Not all plays are reviewable, and the list of exactly which plays fall into each category hasn't been finalized pending further talks with the unions. One of the biggest drawbacks to the new system would be lengthening the game, which is something baseball has worked hard to combat in recent years.
"Football, it can take up to five minutes [to review a play] as you've seen and prolong the game," Jones said. "It can be big momentum shifts. So, hopefully if it passes, it happens quickly in the instance that something does happen."
Roberts was confident that MLB would find a way to keep the flow of the game intact even with the added reviews.
"I don't think anybody has really complained about homer calls," he said of the recent addition of home run replay. "That's usually pretty quick. You got a minute maybe, tops. And everybody is back to doing what they do and fans are happy, players are happy, coaches are happy. I don't think it's really affecting anything.
"When you are talking about having four or five or six [reviewed plays] in a game, that's something you do have to be cognizant of, is how much time it does take. But I can't see why four calls would take 30 minutes to get it right with the kind of technology we have."
Gausman to miss start in Minors with arm soreness
BALTIMORE -- Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman, the team's top prospect, will have his next scheduled start in Triple-A Norfolk skipped with minor arm soreness.
"He's not happy about not pitching, but just had a little soreness," O's manager Buck Showalter said of the 22-year-old. "Probably be the last time he ever tells about it. That's usually how it goes. They don't seem alarmed about it. There was some give and take about whether they were even going to do it. Plus, we've got six starters down there."
Gausman is 0-2 with a 5.20 ERA in six games (five starts) for Norfolk and pitched five innings on Aug. 8, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks to Gwinnett. He went 1-3 with a 6.21 ERA in nine games (five starts) for the Orioles, having two separate stints with the big league club, first as part of the rotation and then the bullpen.
Assuming he's healthy, Gausman -- who has logged a total of 107 1/3 innings -- figures to be a September callup that could help Baltimore down the stretch.
"I just hope we have the innings there," Showalter said of keeping a close eye on Gausman's innings limit and the potential boost he'd provide to the big league club.
"When you look at guys like him and all those guys down there, we'd like to play until the end of October, so you look at it in that capacity so that everybody's available to us if there's a need. So far, everybody down there is at an inning count, starters and relievers, where they would be able to pitch for us through October if needed."
Orioles to serve as event chair at Heart Ball
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles announced a partnership with the American Heart Association on Friday that will have the club serving as event chair for the 30th Annual Baltimore Heart Ball on Feb. 1.
The Orioles are the first professional sports team to lead such an effort since the AHA's founding in 1924.
"We were honored to support the Heart Ball last year, and this year we wanted to take more of a leadership role to meet the mission of the AHA, a cause that is important to our players, our organization, and the community at large," Orioles ownership representative Louis Angelos said in a press release. "We believe that with the additional support from the entire Orioles family, we can add even more excitement to the campaign and help save more lives."
The Orioles and the AHA have set what would be a record-setting $810,000 fundraising goal for the Baltimore Heart Ball. Proceeds from the event benefit breakthroughs in cardiovascular disease research, education programs and advocacy efforts. A considerable portion of the funds are also directed to local institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
"The Orioles' and the Angelos family's commitment is incredibly exciting for the AHA and for Baltimore," AHA senior director Angela Wheeler said. "The team members are amazing athletes who practice our core mission and values of maintaining a proper diet and exercise, which makes them a perfect partner."
The Heart Ball is a black-tie celebration that features more than 500 of Baltimore's most prominent physicians, corporate, health care, philanthropy and community leaders to salute the AHA's impact on the Greater Maryland Community. The event features a cocktail hour, gourmet seated dinner, dessert, dancing, live and silent auctions, free valet parking, a special individual giving appeal and the presentation of the Watkins-Saunders Award. Named after Dr. Levi Watkins and Dr. Elijah Saunders, this esteemed award is presented to an individual who exemplifies excellence in diminishing healthcare disparities.
The two organizations are also partnering on a ticket offer available exclusively at www.orioles.com/AHA that will allow fans to contribute to the cause as well as planning events to educate Baltimore City children on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.
Fans can visit www.orioles.com/AHA to take advantage of an exclusive 50 percent off ticket discount for all tickets for each game between now and Sept. 8 simply by donating $10 to the American Heart Association for each ticket purchased. The webpage also contains additional details of the Orioles/AHA partnership, a calendar of AHA events and heart-healthy tips for fans.
The 30th Annual Baltimore Heart Ball will take place on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 6 p.m. ET at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, located at 700 Aliceanna St. For more information about the Baltimore Heart Ball or sponsorship opportunities, please contact Angela Wheeler, senior director, Heart Ball Events, at 443-690-7795 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Pitcher Jason Hammel played catch on Friday with no issues and will do so again on Saturday as he works his way back up to the mound. He was shut down after having some discomfort while trying to play catch in San Diego and had a cortisone injection after that.
• Bud Norris, who pitched in relief in Wednesday's loss in Arizona, will still start Saturday's game and right-hander Scott Feldman will pitch on Sunday.
• Prior to Friday's game, the Orioles recognized players and coaches of the Baltimore RBI League champion teams in an on-field ceremony. The champions honored were Liberty Road (12-and-under age group), the Gardenville Grays (13-15), the Parkville Patriots (16-18) and the Baltimore Rattlers (softball). More than 500 Baltimore teenagers participated in the Orioles-funded league this summer.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.