Thomas Boswell on Randy Johnson's Quest for Win No. 300

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some players are stars. Fewer are superstars. But only a handful are larger-than-life legends who turn their peers into gawking kids.

Among pitchers, those at the top of the pyramid are the hurlers who can fan 300 men in a season. Only nine men have done it more than once. Four of them did it twice, including Walter Johnson. Two of them did it three times, including Sandy Koufax. Then there is a gap up to the only two pitchers who have fanned 300 men an almost insane six times -- Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.

Johnson, in his 21st and perhaps final season, will start at Nationals Park tonight, with the chance to become the 24th pitcher in history to reach 300 wins. For Johnson, it is a chance, as always, to keep to himself, say next to nothing, maintain his menace, focus and mystique. For everyone else, it's time to tell Big Unit tales while he's still around.

Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns still remember the games, down to the details of their at-bats when they first faced Johnson in 2002. The Unit was still at the peak of his career, winning his fifth Cy Young Award, going 24-5 with 334 strikeouts, while they were two young sluggers for Cincinnati, their jaws slack at facing the 6-foot-10 legend. Now, they're vets and Johnson, 45, is in his glorious but difficult endgame with a 5.71 ERA.

"No one throws like him. He's 7-foot tall, throws three-quarter arm and brings it hard, real hard. And no one has a slider like that. If you're a left-handed hitter like me, it looks like the ball is coming in from first base and every pitch is going to hit you in the head," said Dunn who, thanks to his first career hit off Johnson last month raised his batting average and slugging percentage against the southpaw from .000 to .083.

"It's a unique combination," Dunn said. "There's no one to compare him to."

"And he will hit you," Kearns said.

"Oh, yes," echoed the 6-6, 285-pound Dunn, who usually intimidates pitchers, not the other way around.

In those games in '02, Dunn faced the Unit seven times, went 0 for 6 and fanned five times. In the other at-bat, Johnson hit Dunn, not the other way around.

"He knew I was due," said Dunn, menacingly, then he and Kearns laughed. Nobody has ever been "due" against Randy, except maybe due for a headache. "I don't remember him hitting me," said Dunn, a hitter's point of pride.

"Most left-handed hitters just took a day off when he pitched," Kearns said. "I hit a home run off him that year. Don't remind him."

Few want to be reminded of their encounters with Johnson. Nats reliever Ron Villone is an exception. "I got to bat against him twice in 1999 and I hit left-handed. I hit the ball once -- a lucky groundout to second," said Villone, 39. "He's so tall that it looks like he's pitching to you from a Little League mound that's 45 feet away. He struck out 17 that day, didn't walk anybody. It was unbelievable to watch him work.

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