Towering presence

Baseball: When it's all said and done, Randy Johnson may be the best to ever toe a rubber.

April 30, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The numbers are impressive, even by the standards that have defined Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson as the most intimidating pitcher of his generation.

Five starts into the 2000 season, he is dabbling with a degree of domination that would shame some of the greatest names ever to whistle a baseball past a batsman.

Here's the statistical line: 5-0, 1.06 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings.

Here's the skinny: The towering, 36-year-old left-hander isn't getting older. He's getting better.

If that's possible.

This is the same guy who went 10-1 after he was acquired by the Houston Astros midway through the 1998 season. This is the guy who struck out 364 batters last year to record the highest single-season total since Nolan Ryan needed 55 more innings to set the all-time record (383) in 1973.

The same guy who gave up two earned runs or fewer in 14 consecutive late-season starts last year on the way to the National League Cy Young Award.

You want better?

Johnson has a chance to equal a major-league record with his sixth victory in April when he takes the mound against the Chicago Cubs today at Wrigley Field, which -- considering the way he has overpowered every team he has faced this month -- seems pretty likely.

In his first five starts, he has pitched all but 2 2/3 innings, thrown two shutouts and resumed the same heady strikeout pace he maintained throughout the 1999 season. He has had stretches like this before, but even the self-effacing Johnson will not dismiss the possibility that he is better than ever.

"My expectations every fifth day are obviously higher than they've ever been," Johnson said Thursday, "because of the work I put in the four days before I pitch."

Don't laugh. We're talking about a guy in his mid-30s who had lower-back surgery a couple of years ago and celebrated his recovery by going 20-4 the next season. If he thinks he can do better, who's going to argue?

"I don't know about that," he said, "but I'm never satisfied. I'm never complacent with anything I do. I evaluate the good games I have just as much as I evaluate the bad ones.

"I even try to improve on the good games. I think the biggest ingredient is never being content, always trying to improve ... always pushing the limits."

That is a character trait that Johnson comes by naturally. His father was a Northern California police officer who taught his son that he might not get a second chance to make the most of his life's work.

The lesson crystalized when Rollen Johnson passed away on Christmas Day in 1992.

"I think you can look back and see from 1993 to the present, my career jump-started," Johnson said. "My dad had a big impact on my life. He made me push myself to be better."

Since his father's death, Johnson has transformed himself from a control-challenged .500 pitcher into perhaps the most overpowering left-hander in the history of the game.

There have been other influences along the way, most notably Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who, along with pitching guru Tom House, helped Johnson develop consistent mechanics and an even stronger work ethic. The rest is history in the making.

Lofty comparison

If Johnson has yet to achieve the status of a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, it is not for lack of statistical credentials. In fact, if you line up his numbers alongside those of Dodgers great Sandy Koufax -- considered by many to be the greatest lefty ever -- the similarities are amazing.

When Johnson held the Phillies to three hits over 6 2/3 innings on Tuesday night, he improved his career record to 165-88. Koufax had a 165-87 record over a similar 12-year time span before being forced into premature retirement by an arthritic elbow after the 1966 season.

Koufax had a lower career ERA (2.76 to Johnson's 3.22), but at least part of the difference can be explained away by the arrival of the designated hitter in the American League, where Johnson spent most of his career.

No one would contend that Johnson pitches with the same kind of precision that created the Koufax legend in the early 1960s, but he might be even more overpowering.

Johnson's 364-strikeout performance in 1999 was accomplished in just 271 1/3 innings.

Theoretically, if he was able to maintain that same strikeout frequency over 335 2/3 innings -- the number that Koufax pitched on the way to a National League single-season record of 382 in 1965 -- Johnson would have struck out an incredible 450 batters.

Of course, that kind of comparison does not take into account the physical advantage that Johnson might derive from pitching less frequently than starters did in the 1960s, but the numbers still paint the picture of a solid Hall of Fame candidate who should have ample time to embellish his credentials over the next few years.

There are worse things than being put on a pedestal next to someone like the incomparable Koufax, but Johnson shies away from comparisons.

"I don't like to be compared to anybody," he said. "I don't think about those kinds of things. You have to be yourself."

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