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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Change Might Be Good for Johnson

April 21, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN

SEATTLE — In a game they should phone in, Randy Johnson pitches for the Seattle Mariners today against the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Mariners have won 33 of Johnson's last 36 regular-season starts, and Johnson, 18-2 as the American League's Cy Young Award winner last year, is already 3-0 and on his way to a fifth consecutive strikeout title.

He is also continuing his evolution from the erratic left-hander on the verge of quitting in frustration over his inability to master mechanics and fulfill potential.

Evolution? If an intimidating fastball that lights speed guns at more than 95 mph and a wicked slider that registers about 87 isn't enough, Johnson has begun to feature a changeup and sinking fastball. He has begun to elicit groundouts among the strikeouts and fly outs.

"I've been working on a two-seam fastball for some time," he said of the sinking fastball. "It seemed to make sense as a way to extend my career. I won't be able to throw the ball past hitters forever. You've got to adjust, stay ahead, be ready for when that time comes.

"I said last year that I felt I had become a complete pitcher, and this takes it another step. I mean, it's fun to go out there and be a little crafty instead of trying to overpower everyone."

He'll leave that to his team, which had a club-record eight-game win streak broken Friday night. Their hot start has enabled Seattle to send a message to the Angels and others in the West.

"It feels good to have bounced right back after last year," Johnson said. "It kind of makes a statement that we're for real."

As opposed to simply having taken advantage of the Angels' collapse last summer while winning the AL West.

"It's early, but we've established some confidence and hopefully it will continue to grow," Johnson said, adding that the good start has helped erase questions of chemistry and production after the loss of first baseman Tino Martinez to the New York Yankees and third baseman Mike Blowers to the Dodgers. Neither has homered for his new team, but replacements Russ Davis and Paul Sorrento have combined for six homers and 23 runs batted in.

"It wasn't one guy last year, and it hasn't been one guy this year," Johnson said. "That's important. We've done this with Junior [Ken Griffey] struggling [.213 through Friday]. It should be an exciting year."

Johnson, of course, contributes to the excitement every time he pitches. He said the off-speed pitches will help produce more short-count outs, which should keep him stronger in the late innings.

"And the off-speed stuff will make my fastball look faster," he said, which is not what hitters want to hear.

This is all something of a mind game for Johnson, who said he will use the off-speed pitches extensively against only "free-swinging teams that go up there looking for the hard stuff, looking to hack."

He cited Milwaukee, Detroit and Toronto as examples, and said he also wants to be an example for the younger pitchers in the Seattle rotation.

"I want to show them that the key is avoiding long counts, working ahead and changing speeds," he said. "I want them to feel they can learn from me."

Perhaps, but Johnson will still throw enough heaters and strike out enough batters (his 12.35 ratio for nine innings last year was highest in history) to prove he is beyond the learning capacity of most.

NAMES AND NUMBERS

--Paul Wagner, who led the National League in losses last year at 5-16, has responded to the tougher handling of Pittsburgh Pirate Manager Jim Leyland and the decision to bury the "well, he's still very young" excuse by going 3-0, giving up only two earned runs and 15 hits in 23 1/3 innings. Said Leyland: "We're starting to see what we thought we had all along. I've always said he was the kind of pitcher who could get a manager fired if you gave up on him too soon."

--Ryan Klesko, the Atlanta Braves' left fielder, acknowledges he has been talking to his bats--and with them. Klesko has a .424 average and eight home runs, one shy of Dale Murphy's club record for April. What does he tell his bats? "You really wouldn't want to know," said Klesko, who produces so much torque that he has already broken five this year. He also has General Manager John Schuerholz thinking he might hit 40 homers. Fifty, maybe? "Anything is possible," Klesko said.

--Bad pitching? How about no pitching? There are 53 major league pitchers on the disabled list, including the Colorado Rockies' high-priced duo of Bret Saberhagen ($5.6 million) and Bill Swift ($4.6 million). The Rockies completed their first home stand on Wednesday with a 4-4 record, and it was a page out of 1995. They batted .340 and averaged seven runs, but what is left of the pitching staff was again gasping in the high altitude. Starters gave up 38 earned runs in 41 innings, and the staff earned-run average was 7.75. Said Manager Don Baylor: "After a while, the excuses are gone. You have to start playing better and pitching better. Chicken soup is not the answer."

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