Mariners: Randy Johnson doesn't need extra motivation, but the Orioles weren't kind to him in '97

ACES UP:

October 01, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- If such a thing is possible, the Orioles dominated Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson this year. They beat him twice. Won all three of the games he started against them. Defied science.

The Big Unit has been all but unbeatable on the way to the first-ever 20-win season by a Mariners pitcher, but he fell victim to the machinations of Orioles manager Davey Johnson and some odd occurences at Camden Yards to arrive in the Divisional Series with a big Orange-and-Black chip on his shoulder.

What does it all mean? If you're the Orioles, do you revel in your regular season success and the knowledge that Johnson has lost seven of 10 career decisions against you or do you wonder what you've gotten yourself into?

If you're Randy Johnson, do you wonder why the Orioles have your number or do you get even more pumped up for your second foray into postseason play?

"I'm not worried about that," Johnson said. "All that stuff is kind of thrown out the window. Anybody who has had success against me...or anybody I have had success against, that doesn't mean anything. I expect it to be a great series."

The outcome of series may ride on his performance, as it did in the Divisional Series against the New York Yankees in 1995. Johnson will take the mound for Game 1 tonight against Orioles right-hander Mike Mussina, and will be back if the best-of-five series comes down to a decisive Game 5 at Camden Yards.

Mariners manager Lou Piniella ponders the events of 1996 -- the rain delay in Johnson's May 8 start at Camden Yards, the power failure that delayed his next start there -- and sums it up with a wry smile and a piercing look into the obvious.

"We expect a good game from Randy," he said, his expression saying much more than his words.

Everything will be in play. Johnson's amazing emotional intensity, which was so obvious during that first, heart-stopping playoff series against the Yankees two years ago, could make him seem even larger than his 6-10 frame. And his presumable desire to defeat the Orioles, who the Mariners suspected of manipulating the weather forecast in Baltimore to snap his 16-game winning streak in May.

That game stands out as the most memorable head-to-head matchup. Johnson was one victory away from tying the American League record for consecutive wins when the game was stopped for 57 minutes because of the apparent threat of rain -- that forecast relayed from the groundskeeper's shack, where Orioles head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska has his own Doppler radar screen. It didn't rain a drop during the delay, and Johnson unraveled after returning from the delay, prompting Piniella to wonder if there was more foul play than foul weather involved in the decision to stop the game.

"If that guy wants to sit in a little room and stare at a radar screen," Piniella said angrily, "he should move to the airport."

Johnson has been careful to steer around questions about any personal agenda. He certainly doesn't need any extra motivation to pitch well at the Kingdome, where his heightened level of intensity is borne out statistically by a significantly higher strikeout ratio (1.52 per inning) than on the road (1.19).

"I don't think Randy will need any motivation at all," Piniella said. "The importance of the game will be motivation enough. I don't think he pitched that badly against the Orioles. One of the games against them, he didn't have his good stuff, but the other two games he pitched well. The one game was 2-1 until the rain delay and the other one was the day after that power failure."

Don't hold your breath waiting for any fighting words from the big guy. Johnson is a quiet, introverted guy whose fierce competitive nature is expressed almost exclusively on the mound.

"I'm ready for (the playoffs)," he said. "I think we all are. Baltimore is going to be no easy task, but we're ready."

If the Orioles want to get an idea of what to expect, they might want to pull out the videotapes of Johnson's postseason performance in 1995. He came back from an awesome performance against the Angels in the one-game divisional playoff to overpower the Yankees in his only start, then came back in relief to win the decisive fifth game that propelled the Mariners into the American League Championship Series. He pitched a total of 10 innings and struck out 16 batters.

Johnson also pitched well in the ALCS and finished the postseason with a 2-1 record and 2.49 ERA in four appearances.

That must seem like a very long time ago. Johnson suffered a back injury that forced him out of the Mariners rotation in May and eventually required surgery. He spent the winter in physical therapy and returned for spring training with no guarantee that he would be the same pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in 1995.

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