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Johnson Has Plenty to Smile About : Yankees: Left-hander, one of three rookies in rotation, limits Angels to four hits in 8 1/3 innings for his second major league victory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You couldn’t tell by the stoic expression on his face, but Jeff Johnson said he had fun out there Saturday night. It was the Angels who had to grin and bear it.

Johnson, one of three rookie pitchers in the New York Yankee starting rotation, pitched the best game of his young career. Make that very young career.

The 24-year-old left-hander bedazzled the Angels for 8 1/3 innings. He limited them to four hits before giving way to Steve Farr, who got the final two outs in the Yankees’ 2-0 victory. It was the second big league victory for Johnson (2-3), who was called up from Columbus on June 5.

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“I had a good time tonight,” Johnson said. “I really had the slider going. I haven’t had a good one since I was called up. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get it back, but it was sharp tonight.”

Just ask the Angels, who pounded the ball into the dirt for 16 groundouts. In fact, they hit only six balls out of the infield.

Johnson, who is only three years removed from pitching at the University of North Carolina Charlotte in 1989, struck out five and walked two. He lowered his earned-run average to 3.20.

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“Jeff was in command of all his pitches,” pitching coach Mark Connor said. “He was getting the ball inside and was mixing in a good changeup. That’s the best he’s thrown since being called up.”

Johnson was called up when Pascual Perez was injured. He joined fellow rookies Scott Kamieniecki and Wade Taylor in the rotation.

All three had started the year at Columbus. Kamieniecki, who Friday defeated the Angels, is 3-1, and Taylor, who pitches today, is 4-3.

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“We liked all three of them during spring training,” Yankee Manager Stump Merrill said. “But, with the veteran pitchers we had, we felt it would be better for them to pitch together at Columbus. Necessity forced us to bring them up.”

Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 1988, was 4-0 with a 2.61 ERA when he was brought up. In his first major league start, he lost to Toronto, but pitched well (two earned runs in seven innings).

His first victory was a 3-0 triumph over the Toronto Blue Jays. He pitched seven innings, allowing only five hits.

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Except for a couple of bad innings, Johnson has been on the mark. Eight of the 18 runs he has allowed have come in two innings, a five-run sixth against the Minnesota Twins and a three-run third against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I felt much more in control out there tonight,” Johnson said. “I felt that wherever (catcher) Matt Nokes called for the pitch, I could put it there.”

Johnson allowed only two hits through the first eight innings. He got Luis Polonia to ground out to start the ninth, but then surrendered singles to pinch-hitter Bobby Rose and Wally Joyner.

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“I had a lot of adrenaline going in the ninth,” Johnson said. “I have to learn to control that and close out the game.”

Instead, he was lifted for Farr, ending Johnson’s bid to become the first Yankee rookie to throw a shutout since Scott Nielsen in 1986.

Farr got Dave Winfield to ground into a game-ending double play.

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“Every game Jeff is learning,” Connor said. “He got to the ninth this time. Next time he’ll know how to get through the ninth.”

And maybe even smile about it.