Big Unit nears big milestone
“I’m not going to talk about this stuff. OK, I got to go,” he said the other day, quickly leaving his locker and heading to the field. “I get distracted. I just try not to talk at all.”
So that’s how it’s going to be as the Big Unit prepares for his first try at 300 victories Wednesday night at Washington.
At 45, the San Francisco lefty owns a World Series ring and co-MVP honors, five Cy Young awards and is a 10-time All-Star selection. He’s thrown two no-hitters, including a perfect game, and ranks second on the career strikeout list.
Some of his best seasons have come in his later years—he’s won more games in his 40s than he did in his 20s.
The tallest player in the majors when he debuted with the long-gone Expos more than two decades ago, Johnson grew into more than oddity. He harnessed his 6-foot-10 frame, refined his blazing fastball and wicked slider and came to symbolize what power pitching is all about.
“If he has control of his stuff, he’s going to win a lot of ballgames,” Montreal manager Buck Rodgers predicted after Johnson’s second appearance in the big leagues.
Still capable of dominating with the Giants, he’s on the verge of a plateau that many in baseball believe will never again be reached.
Next up on the win list behind Johnson is 46-year-old Jamie Moyer (250), followed by 36-year-old Andy Pettitte (220). At 32, Roy Halladay isn’t even halfway there (139).
“With the way pitching is being used nowadays, I think it probably lessens the chance of it,” said Nolan Ryan, among the 23 aces to achieve the mark. “Whether they start using starters differently because pitching is at such a premium, I don’t know.”
Some thought Greg Maddux might have been the last to the milestone in 2004. But then Tom Glavine reached 300 two years ago.
“I don’t know them,” he said when asked about Maddux and Glavine. “I wasn’t their teammate.”
Johnson has put himself in position by overcoming back problems that threatened to end his career. He’s 4-4 with a 5.71 ERA in his first two months with the Giants.
“This is a milestone, but he has said he didn’t come here to just win five games,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He wants to reach it but he wants to get it behind him, too.”
Many of the Giants will tour the White House before the game Wednesday. Johnson wasn’t planning to join them, certainly opting to prepare for his start.
“I’ve already been there,” he said.
Johnson takes great pride in the fact he worked tirelessly to return from two back operations in recent years while with Arizona.
“He’s not just some genetic freak who comes up every five days. He works,” St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Whenever you were within two or three weeks of playing him, you started counting the days hoping you missed him.”
Johnson probably figured he’d be doing this for the Diamondbacks, but the sides failed to reach an agreement last winter. He instead signed an $8 million, one-year contract with San Francisco in late December to pitch in his native Bay Area, then five victories shy of 300.
“There are only a handful of guys that have pitched this game that make the opposing manager alter his lineup,” said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, Johnson’s former skipper with the New York Yankees. “Even your guys that play every day, left-handers that would play every game against left-handers, you wouldn’t do it against Randy Johnson.”
Johnson would be the sixth lefty in major league history with 300.
Catcher Bengie Molina can’t wait. He already helped celebrate home run king Barry Bonds’ 756th homer in August 2007 that moved the slugger past Hank Aaron.
“A 300-game winner, we might not see it again,” Molina said. “I hope Randy understands how much it means to us. We appreciate every effort. I’ve never heard him mention any of that—his goals, 300.”
Johnson was selected by the Expos—now the Nationals—in the second round of the 1985 draft out of Southern California. He broke into the big leagues three years later as a wild thrower still learning how to pitch.
He was traded to Seattle in May 1989, part of a package for Mark Langston, and it was there where his career took off in the early 90s after he received some advice from an aging Ryan.
“I think for Randy to win 300 makes his career complete,” Ryan said. “He obviously, for a period of time, 10 to 15 years, was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball.”
Often prickly off the mound, he was downright menacing atop the hill.
Johnson pitched his first no-hitter in 1990, won 19 games with 308 strikeouts in 1993, and then led the Mariners to their first playoff berth with an 18-2 record in 1995. He finished his 10-year stint in Seattle with a 130-74 record, before being traded to Houston in 1998.
He signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks before the following season, beginning one of the most dominating runs a pitcher has ever had. Johnson won the Cy Young in each of his first four seasons with Arizona, capturing the coveted pitcher’s triple crown in 2002 with a 24-5 record with a 2.32 ERA and 334 strikeouts.
His most memorable moments in 2001, when he came out of the bullpen to beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series to give the Diamondbacks the title. He went 3-0 in the Series, sharing the MVP award with Curt Schilling.
Johnson pitched the last perfect game in the majors, at age 40 against Atlanta.
Rickey Henderson certainly felt the heat before that. The Hall of Famer struck out in 30 of 59 at-bats against Johnson, making him the Unit’s top victim.
Johnson goes into his next start with a 299-164 record and a 3.29 ERA. He’s struck out 4,843—Ryan leads that list with 5,714.
Johnson hasn’t had as much success since he left Arizona for the first time following the 2004 season. He won 34 games in two seasons with the Yankees. He returned to Arizona in ’07 and won just 15 games in two years because of the back problems. Now he’s nearing the end of the line in San Francisco.
Johnson’s first major league victory came on Sept. 15, 1988, five days after his 25th birthday. He has 71 wins since turning 40, compared to 64 during his 20s.
“He had tremendous talent, overpowering talent,” La Russa said. “Now he’s got very good talent. Right now he throws like most guys would like to throw. But when he was younger it just wasn’t fair. Very few every generation come around like him. He’s very special.”