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United They Fall

Batters Aren't Catching Any Breaks This Season With Johnson, Who Is at the Top of His Game

May 10, 2000|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Randy Johnson is having the time of his life, though one couldn't tell by his menacing scowl and disposition.

The Big Unit has been typically intense during his record-setting start, intimidating batters with every 98-mph fastball and piercing glare. His commanding presence has helped the Arizona Diamondbacks overcome injuries and move into the National League West lead while making this desert oasis baseball's hottest spot.

Johnson is also making believers of critics who figured he couldn't top last season's Cy Young Award-winning performance.

He insists he's having more fun than ever, just don't expect him to show it because he needs to keep his edge. As if being a dominant 6-foot-10 left-hander weren't enough.

Johnson and Dodger right-hander Kevin Brown are scheduled to start tonight in a marquee matchup at Bank One Ballpark.

The premier pitchers in the '98 free-agent class, Johnson and Brown have been as good as advertised. But Johnson has been even better.

"A lot of people say to me, 'You don't appear to be enjoying it [his success],' " said Johnson, among the game's most engaging players away from the spotlight. "I am. I just don't get wrapped up in it. I don't have time to think about it.

"I work extremely hard so that I can go out there and help my team. I work extremely hard so that I don't cheat myself or my team. But I am having a great time now."

It shows in his work.

Johnson is 7-0 with a 0.93 earned-run average and four complete games in seven starts. He has struck out 75 and walked 13 in 58 1/3 innings, and limited opponents to a .156 batting average. He is batting .273.

Johnson had what many consider the greatest April in baseball history, joining Dave Stewart and Vida Blue as the only pitchers to have won six games in the month. And Johnson's 0.91 ERA was the lowest in the group.

The defending West champion Diamondbacks lead the division by five games despite many problems. Third baseman Matt Williams and closer Matt Mantei are sidelined because of injuries, others have started slowly and Manager Buck Showalter has had to shuffle the lineup frequently.

But the Diamondbacks keep rolling, and Johnson is leading the trip.

"Just look at where we are at this point with everything we've been through," said infielder Andy Fox. "He has really helped us keep our heads above water.

"He brings an intensity level to the table that brings up the level of the whole team. You want to bring your game up to that level each game, so there's a carry-over effect each time he pitches. He's showing he's one of the top two or three pitchers in the game."

Actually, Johnson has been that for some time.

Last season, he became only the third pitcher to win Cy Young awards in both leagues, having also earned the honor with the Seattle Mariners in 1995.

In his first season with Arizona, Johnson led the NL with 364 strikeouts--fourth-most all time--a 2.48 ERA, 271 2/3 innings and 12 complete games. He went 17-9 despite poor run support, helping the Diamondbacks win 100 games and a division championship faster than any franchise.

The Diamondbacks believe they have already received a huge return on their four-year, $52-million investment in Johnson.

"He has separated himself from everyone else in the league," said Arizona infielder-outfielder Tony Womack. "But you have to be careful not to get too caught up watching him because you still have to make the plays.

"Even though you know he's a dominant pitcher, you have to stay focused. Michael Jordan's teammates had to always be ready too."

At 36, Johnson remains one of the game's hardest throwers. His fastball is still clocked consistently at 98 mph, and his 89-mph slider is among the best.

He has refined a sinking fastball and gained better command of all his pitches. Johnson is no longer a one-trick wonder.

"I've tried to be more of a complete pitcher, as opposed to trying to overpower a guy all the time," said Johnson, who with 2,768 strikeouts needs five to tie Frank Tanana for 15th place on the all-time list.

"I'm more concerned with going out there and throwing as few pitches as possible, not just in the game but in the inning. I get more satisfaction out of getting a double-play ball than striking out two guys in an inning."

He's still doing the latter frequently.

Johnson had at least 10 strikeouts in six of his seven outings this season. He has 131 double-digit strikeout games in his 11-plus seasons--the most by a left-hander and second only to Nolan Ryan.

Ryan has had a big influence on Johnson, helping him with his mechanics and guiding him on the journey from wild power thrower to polished pitcher.

"I've always given Nolan Ryan and [former Texas Ranger pitching coach] Tom House credit for sitting me down and working with me," Johnson said. "Then it was up to me to take it a step further and become more of a pitcher."

Johnson has been compared favorably with former Dodger lefty Sandy Koufax, and should one day join him in the Hall of Fame.

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