Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Big Unit's Big Achievement

Randy Johnson isn't the same Big Unit he was when he recorded strikeout No. 1 or even No. 4,000. In his mind, the gun-slinging, intimidating strikeout guy is behind him.
So when Johnson notched career strikeout No. 4,500 in the fourth inning in a Yankees 7-2 win Monday against the Angels, he said it was just a bonus to his career, a late tack-on that doesn't say anything about who he is now, just who he was.

"I must have struck out a lot of people somewhere along the line, just not recently," Johnson said. "Today's game was a by-product of what I've done over the majority of my career, and that was started in Seattle and really ended in Arizona."

Johnson remembered other career strikeout milestones such as No. 4,000, which he reached in 2004. Only then he lost. He remembered striking out 19 batters in a game, and again losing.

At this point in his career, it's all about winning, which Johnson has now done in back-to-back starts. He had won just one of five previous starts.

And that's what Johnson said felt better after Monday's game than any landmark. He held the loaded Angels lineup to two runs over seven innings while allowing eight hits and striking out five.

"I don't think it means anything. Should it?" Johnson asked. "I've been around a long time and struck out a lot of batters. That's probably why my arm's pretty tired after I pitch.

"I could not strike out anybody for the rest of my career and I'd be content. Winning ballgames is really how you measure a pitcher, not by strikeouts."

Either way, Johnson has been successful. He now has 276 career wins and is only the third pitcher in Major-League history to record 4,500 strikeouts.

"Randy is a dominant pitcher," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He has been a dominant pitcher for a long, long, long time. Not too many guys of his age -- Nolan Ryan did it -- dominate the game into their 40s. And Roger, of course is doing it."

Ryan (5,714 career K's) and Clemens (4,552) are the only other two pitchers to have more strikeouts than Johnson, who now has 4,503.

After Johnson recorded the strikeout of Tim Salmon with a wicked slider, the crowd chanted his name. He only gave a small wave toward the Yankees dugout. Catcher Jorge Posada came out from behind the plate to stop the game momentarily. Otherwise, Johnson may have just plowed on.

"I went out there and said, 'Congratulations, you've done a hell of a job,'" Posada said. "'You deserve it. You deserve this ovation. Enjoy it.'"

Of course, Johnson ignored the advice, bearing down and retiring the next batter with a runner still on first. Only then did Johnson fully acknowledge the standing ovation before waving to his family sitting behind the backstop.

Posada, who had chemistry issues with Johnson during their first season together, was the first teammate to greet his pitcher with a handshake and a pat on the head.

Salmon couldn't be a better opponent for Johnson to face. Of all active players, he's struck out Salmon the most -- 23 times. Of all players Johnson faced in his career, active and retired, Salmon ranks fifth on Johnson's K list.

But Salmon's latest failures weren't chalked up to the same 6-foot-10 lefty who had dominated him in the past. This was a new pitcher.

"He's different," Salmon said. "He really pitches now. He has a splitty. He can still be hard in certain situations, but he doesn't come out on every hitter like that. He reminds me of Roger Clemens with that splitty. Now you have to worry about that."

Actually Johnson used five pitches Monday: a splitter, two-seam fastball, slider, changeup and, of course, that hard four-seam fastball.

After all, just because he's a different pitcher at 42 doesn't mean a worse one.

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BallHype: hype it up! Posted by Steve Kenul at 7:27 AM


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