BRADENTON, Fla. -- Reliever Pat Neshek just wanted to get healthy and make a good impression on his new organization this spring, and both missions have been accomplished.
A bullpen hopeful, Neshek signed a Minor League deal with the Orioles this winter, and he is one of the last pitchers competing for the two open spots. He entered Saturday having tossed nine scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and striking out eight, and finally feels back to form after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in the winter of 2008.
"I kind of feel where I was before the surgery," said Neshek. "Last year [with San Diego] there were flashes of 88, 89 [mph with my fastball], in maybe a real good game, 90. That was very few. This year it seems I'm doing it at ease, like I'm hitting 88 without putting much into it, and that's the pretty cool thing about it, because last year I was probably about 85, 86."
Neshek had a stellar season in 2007 with the Twins, going 7-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 74 games and earning a spot as a final ballot candidate for the All-Star Game. But the elbow injury shut him down the following May and he struggled to work his way back, going 1-1 with a 4.01 ERA for the Padres last season and spending time with their Triple-A Tucson club.
"When I signed over here, my main goal was to throw strikes," he said. "When I was with the Padres, I was fine in the Minors, but in the Majors I had a lot of walks, so I really wanted to work on that command and make a good impression with the staff. That was my main goal.
"When you get older and you're sitting in Triple-A, you don't even know if you have a job there. So I'm just happy to be playing baseball. That's the truth."
The 31-year-old Neshek, who has an unorthodox sidearm delivery, is competing with Darren O'Day and lefties Troy Patton and Zach Phillips. Patton is out of options, meaning he would have to clear waivers if he doesn't make the team. Phillips has been extremely tough against left-handed hitters, and O'Day has allowed three runs in five innings. Both O'Day and Neshek appear to be the odd men out, although Neshek isn't looking at Opening Day as an all-or-nothing proposition.
"The biggest thing is just feeling good and knowing that I think I will be successful," Neshek said. "That's really all that matters. It would be nice [to make the team], but if not now, then in a month or two. You really want to look at the end goal."
Johnson sharp in scoreless frame vs. Bucs
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Reliever Jim Johnson looked particularly sharp on Saturday afternoon, tossing a scoreless eighth inning against a Pirates split squad. It was the first time he threw on consecutive days this spring.
"I thought JJ had his best outing of the spring," manager Buck Showalter said. "The biggest thing is the location. You can tell when he is locating the ball, he feels good about himself. I think that second day in a row did him well."
Johnson hit 94 mph with his fastball in the 19-pitch inning, picking up a strikeout along the way, and Showalter didn't deny that it gave him a little peace of mind to see Johnson -- who had been slow to recover from a back injury -- back to his old self.
"There was some unknown. He went through a little bit of an offseason that he has never done before," Showalter said of Johnson, who didn't start throwing until February. "Like I said before, I always feel like he is going to get there, it was just a matter of time. And that was real encouraging today."
Outfielder Jamie Hoffman was in the clubhouse on Saturday morning, having signed a Minor League deal with the Orioles the day before. Hoffman swill stay in big league camp for a few days, since Sunday is the final day of Minor League spring training. Hoffman had been in the Rockies' camp, and he became a free agent after being designated for assignment.
Reliever Matt Lindstrom said that the cramp in his right leg came while doing some conditioning work after throwing two innings in a Minor League game on Monday. He threw off a mound on Friday and doesn't think the situation is serious.
Chris Tillman will throw five innings in a Minor League game on Sunday against Tommy Hunter, who will go six. Alfredo Simon, who is on waivers, is scheduled to pitch three innings in that game as well.
The team will use its relievers for Monday's game against Florida Southern, with Jason Hammel slated to start on Tuesday against State College of Florida.
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.