Monday, March 10, 2008 Updated: March 11, 2:48 PM ET
Even at 44, Big Unit still expects much from himself
By Jim Caple ESPN.com
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson has thrown a no-hitter and a perfect game, struck out 20 batters in nine innings one night and more than 4,000 in his career. He killed a bird with a pitch and punched a cameraman in New York. He received pitching lessons from Nolan Ryan, won consecutive games of a World Series and turned Larry Walker into a switch-hitter for one at-bat. He pitched for a team that no longer exists, a team with a Moose for a mascot and the most famous team in American sports. He's won five Cy Young awards, 284 games and, barring a congressional hearing or the revelation about a wife taking HGH, his mullet-coiffed mug will be in the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
But Monday afternoon, the Big Unit had a modest goal when he pitched in a competitive situation for the first time since last June.
"I wasn't too worried about too many things today,'' Johnson said. "I just wanted to go out there and have fun and not fall on my face and not kill any hitters. ... Today was just getting my feet wet.''
He managed all that in his first spring game, facing nine Rockies batters in 1 1/3 innings, allowing four hits, three runs, one walk, one home run, striking out one batter and leaving the field with neither an apparent injury nor a homicide.
And now comes the even bigger test as Johnson returns from surgery on his 44-year-old back. How will it feel Tuesday when he wakes up and gets out of bed?
"Tomorrow will be a big day as well,'' he said. "I've had six months to heal. Last year was only 3½ months. I have no choice but to be patient. If I rush it and the injury happens again, I'll really be backed into a corner.
"I have a long way to go. Even when I was healthy the first six years here, I'd complain about not getting enough innings in. I'd have 28 innings and not feel it was enough.''
Randy Johnson threw 35 pitches and 1 1/3 innings before retiring for the day.
Johnson underwent surgery on a disc in his back before last season and pitched very well at times until the back gave out on him again in July. He underwent surgery to remove the disc, missed the rest of the season and has been rehabbing the back ever since.
On the one hand, Johnson says he feels healthy, that the difference between the way his back feels this spring and last year is "night and day'' and that he isn't "walking on eggshells'' with worry he might re-injure it. On the other hand, he acknowledged it crossed his mind before Monday's start that "Anything could have happened. I could have thrown a pitch and it could have been over.''
"There certainly had to be some anxiety to get back on the mound,'' Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price said. "Is he going to throw the ball over the plate? And how will he feel after this? But he had a good day.''
Throwing his fastball mostly at 87-90 mph with a decent slider, Johnson had a fairly smooth first inning, striking out Matt Holliday, popping up Todd Helton and giving up one hit, a double to Troy Tulowitzki. He struggled in the second inning, however, allowing back-to-back singles followed by a three-run homer to Chris Iannetta. He also walked Jayson Nix before retiring Cory Sullivan on a flyball to left. Johnson had hoped to get through two innings, but after going through the lineup once and throwing 35 pitches, the Diamondbacks decided he had done enough for the day.
Manager Bob Melvin has said that he would like Johnson healthy enough to make 25 or so starts this season, but the Big Unit expects more. "I put myself down for 34 starts in my fantasy league,'' he said, adding that he didn't necessarily draft himself first, a grudging acknowledgment that he is 44 and just possibly past his prime.
When he was healthy last year, Johnson was 4-3 with a 3.81 ERA, going 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA in a stretch just before the back injury. "I hear about athletes hanging around too long and embarrassing themselves but based on last year, I can still pitch,'' he said. "That's why I put myself through all that rehab.''
If I would have been satisfied with having a so-so year, I may not have been able to do what I've done. I don't think I'll ever meet my expectations.
Johnson talked about the need to prove himself healthy, that while he is pretty self-motivated, the doubts of others are a fun extra incentive. He would be happy to win 17 games this season as he did in 2005 and 2006 "when they said I was terrible.'' He said he had a Zen view that is focused on this year rather than looking into the future. And he ducked a question about the 300-win mark by saying, "I'm just trying to get through spring training right now.''
If Johnson is healthy, he should give Arizona the best starting rotation in the majors with Brandon Webb and Danny Haren ahead of him, along with Doug Davis. And even though he didn't draft himself first, he still expects a lot from himself.
"I've never really been satisfied with how well I've done," he said. "After 2001, which was a pretty good year, I thought I could do better. And that's what happened in 2002. I've won five Cy Young awards and my fifth Cy Young was my best year.
"If I would have been satisfied with having a so-so year, I may not have been able to do what I've done. I don't think I'll ever meet my expectations.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.