Randy Johnson Wins 300th, Bests Washington Nationals, 5-1: Rain, Late Base Runners Don't Put Halt to History
Friday, June 5, 2009
Randy Johnson never cared much for convention. A solitary man in a team game, he was always the tallest, always the most intimidating, and still somehow the most willing to evolve. Once wild and ornery, time helped him become accurate and reflective, even capable of looking back on everything and saying, "I think I'm satisfied, but I've never been content." Perhaps baseball's most exclusive pitching club has more improbable members. But nobody in that group reinvented himself more frequently than its latest member, who resembles his early-1990s form only in silhouette.
Because rain delayed, canceled, and re-delayed his bid for career win No. 300, Johnson earned his milestone with an unconventional backdrop. In a damp stadium, with several thousand at Nationals Park bearing witness, Johnson, the dominant force in San Francisco's 5-1 win yesterday against the Washington Nationals, became Major League Baseball's 24th 300-game winner. The moment earned its gravitas not just because of history, but because of finality: No active pitcher behind Johnson has strong odds to reach the benchmark. The next 300-game winner might not come around for another generation, and that's only if the next generation produces workhorses like Johnson, who once threw 260 innings in a season. At age 38.
"We don't know if we'll see another one," San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy said.
Johnson, pulled after six innings and two hits because of a minor left shoulder injury, watched the tense seventh and eighth innings from the trainer's room. But he ascended to the dugout steps for the bottom of the ninth. As closer Brian Wilson recorded the final out, about 5,000 fans -- all standing, crowded in the first rows -- chanted, "Randy, Randy." Game over, the scoreboard showed a congratulatory message. Johnson emerged on the field, hugged his son, embraced his teammates and doffed his cap. There was no rowdy celebration, not with Game 2 of a doubleheader coming, but Johnson needed only space to reflect.
About 15 minutes after the game, having grabbed a quick slice of pizza, Johnson thought back on his career. He listed the teams he played for, thanked his family, and mentioned how none of it would have been possible without bullpens and defense. He thought about old age, and joked that "Now I know why [Nolan Ryan] was doing those Advil commercials." He thought about his deceased father, a demanding sort who got word of Johnson's no-hitter in 1990 and asked, "Yeah, but why did you walk seven batters?"
Johnson, in his present form, age 45 years and 266 days, still has that familiar posture from his early days. A restrained pelt of hair flows from the back of his ballcap. He paces the mound, 6 feet 10, all limbs and tensile energy. He chews gum and works fast. He no longer has that trademark fastball -- against the Nationals, it hovered between 88 and 91 -- but the other ingredients intimate on their own.
Though he began his career as a reckless thrower, more famous for his wildness than his velocity, Johnson taught himself the craft -- a good thing, because now his effectiveness relies on it. The Nationals witnessed Johnson's strongest start of the year. He entered with four wins and a 5.71 ERA, but here, he whirred through the lineup, up and down through the first inning in eight pitches, striking out Adam Dunn after a 3-0 count in the second, keeping balls on the ground, retiring the first 10.
Through 52 pitches and four-plus innings, Johnson didn't allow a hit. Through five, only two balls had left the infield on a fly. Washington only scored in the sixth after Alberto González reached first on a throwing error, then trotted home when Nick Johnson doubled him in. He left the game because of what happened earlier that sixth inning, when he bruised his shoulder while diving after a weak grounder.
His final line: six innings, one unearned run, two walks, two strikeouts.
"To me, wins have always outweighed strikeouts," Johnson said. "Strikeouts were just something that always happened, but I think that I wanted to be more known for winning ballgames than striking people out. Pitching a game like today I get more gratification out of that because of the way I'm doing it now than the way I may have done it 10 years ago."
The customary Johnson narrative, describing the hurler at the endpoint of his career, starts with a description mostly of what he lacks: That old don't-give-a-dang mullet, that 100 mph fastball, the stuff that's earned him a perfect game, five Cy Young awards and more than 4,000 strikeouts. But describing Johnson's shortcomings ignores his trick. He has learned to do things that few pitchers ever learn. In 1991, in 201 1/3 innings, Johnson walked 152 batters. In 2005, in 225 2/3 innings, he walked 47.
"He sort of took that path where he was persistent, persistent, persistent, knowing what he had to work on," said Washington first base coach Marquis Grissom, who first met Johnson in 1989, when both were in Montreal's system. "Everyone says, you can't talk to Barry Bonds, you can't talk to Randy Johnson. No -- you can talk to them. You talk to them when they're ready. Randy, he knows how to work. It's the mental part of the game, and that, I think, is what I am so interested in. Being so competitive and determined, knowing what it takes for greatness."
Johnson was handed a 2-0 lead only because the Giants strung together three hits in the second against Jordan Zimmermann, who was otherwise outstanding, retiring the side in order in five of his six innings. But two runs was all Johnson needed. It helped that San Francisco, still protecting a 2-1 lead, escaped the eighth when Brian Wilson struck out Adam Dunn with the bases loaded on a controversial full-count fastball. Dunn was already 20 feet toward first base when home plate ump Tim Timmons rang up the called strikeout.
Before the night, Johnson had told friends and family -- especially those who'd flown in from long distances -- to read the ticket's fine print: "No win is guaranteed," he joked. Only after the 300th win did Johnson rearrange the reference point: Nothing in his future is guaranteed, a 45-year-old who needs health to keep going, to rise higher in the company of legends.
Said Johnson: "I mean, it sounds funny, but you know, I played 21, 22 years, I'm 45 and I've come up with 300 wins, and I'm thinking, 'I only have 211 more to catch Cy Young.' "