Commentary

Reliving the Randy Johnson experience

What's it like hitting against the Big Unit? Hitters share their often terrifying moments.

Originally Published: June 3, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The most fitting tribute to the greatness of Randy Johnson came 12 years ago when Baltimore Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched his three best left-handed hitters, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and Roberto Alomar (a switch-hitter, but an injury prevented him from batting right-handed) in the first and fourth games of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners.

"Raffy told me that he'd like to play against Randy," Johnson said before Game 1 of his first baseman, who had hit 38 homers and driven in 110 runs that season. "But he told me that Randy could mess him up for two weeks. That was all I needed to hear."

Randy Johnson has been messing up hitters for 22 years. He is one of the 10 to 15 best pitchers of all time, the third best left-hander and one of the most intimidating presences on the mound. That's why left-handed hitting Larry Walker turned his batting helmet around and stood in the right-handed batter's box against Johnson in an All-Star Game. That's why John Kruk feared for his life when Johnson playfully threw over his head in another All-Star Game.

Ask any hitter, and he has a story about a really bad or terrifying at-bat against Johnson. The combination of Johnson's size (6-foot-10), his release point (low three-quarters, creating a slinging action), his velocity (upper 90s) and his calcifying slider has made him almost every hitter's least favorite pitcher to face. Fittingly, the player with the most career at-bats against Johnson did horribly against him -- Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was 7-for-59 with zero RBIs and 30 strikeouts.

Here are a few hitters talking about Johnson:

• Adam Dunn, Nationals: Dunn, a left-handed hitter, is 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts against Johnson. "I don't feel bad about those numbers," Dunn said with a smile. "It was miserable facing him; it is still miserable. I don't know what it was like when he threw 98 [mph] with a slider at 90, but now when he pitches, it's worse. Back then [about eight years ago], you had a chance to walk, but now, he has such great command. He walks very, very few people. He doesn't throw the slider 90 like he used to, but it's 86, and it's filthy."

Tony Gwynn, a lifetime .338 hitter, once said he thought left-handed hitters had a better chance against Johnson's slider because they could see it coming at them, as opposed to right-handed hitters, who lost track of it as it disappeared over their back shoe. Dunn laughed and said, "That's Tony talking, and that's asinine. I'd much rather see something coming into to me than going away from me -- especially when he starts it behind you in the batter's box. The slider is unhittable for a left-handed hitter. I'd bet the farm it's coming, and I still can't hit it. I got a hit off it once, and I wanted to keep the ball."

Dunn said of Johnson's pursuit of 300 wins: "He's one of the greatest pitchers of all time. I don't feel that bad, believe me, how I've done against him. When he's gone, after the wins and all those strikeouts, I'll say, 'Hey, it was good knowing you. I'll miss you, but I won't.'"

• Brian Giles, Padres: Giles is 3-for-32 with two walks and 13 strikeouts against the Big Unit. "I really pride myself on being disciplined with the strike zone, but I can't read the spin on his fastball; I can't tell if it's a fastball or slider," he said. "There's no consistent spin. That makes it extra, extra tough, and my numbers against him are obvious. I've tried all those things [moving up in the box, moving closer to or farther from the plate], and nothing has worked. I don't know if he really hides the ball, but I can't see the release point."

Giles is about 5-10, a foot shorter than Johnson.

"When he's standing on the top of the mound, for me, it's like looking up at the top of a mountain," Giles said. "Because he's so tall, he has that extra extension. It's like he's two or three feet closer than every other pitcher. I know what I've done against him, and I won't miss him. When he has retired, that will be one less left-handed [pitcher] that I have to face."

• Chipper Jones, Braves: He is 13-for-36 with six home runs. "It's feast or famine with me and Randy. He gave me the sombrero [four strikeouts in one game] the other night," he said. "That's my first sombrero by one pitcher. I have five hat tricks [three strikeouts in one game] by one pitcher, and Randy has three of them. There was once a time when he was fairly predictable, and I got him into some predictable counts, and I hit him.

"But he has re-invented himself like [Tom Glavine] did with the Mets, using the inside part of the plate. Now Randy has a little changeup and a split. When I saw him the other night, he'd lost nothing off his slider. He had the short one, the one with a little break at the end and the big sweeping one. He's still 6-10 and 94-95 [mph]. He's the most physically dominating pitcher I've ever faced. Throw in dominant stuff, and it's doubly tough."

Johnson threw a perfect game against the Braves in 2004.

"I don't think I even foul-tipped a ball in that game," Jones said. "The Randy Johnson from that night is … is electrically unhittable. I've also seen him make a ton of mistakes, but his stuff is so good, he gets away with them. If he's on, and your swing is off even a little, he's going to get you, and he's going to make you look really bad. I don't know how left-handed hitters hit him. I thank God every day that my dad made me a switch-hitter."

Jones' last game against Johnson might be that four-strikeout game.

"I really do hope that I've faced him for the last time," Jones said. "When he's finally retires, I'll be the first one to give him a standing ovation and a pat on the back on the way out."

• Kevin Millar, Blue Jays: He is 8-for-48 with 14 strikeouts against Johnson. "I am terrible against him," he said. "I went 4-for-4 against him one day with Florida with a double and a home run, and I don't think I've gotten a hit off him since. And he struck me out a bunch of times. A lot of guys haven't seen him at his best. I've seen him at 98 mph with a 90 mph slider. He is the most dominating pitcher I've ever seen. He only threw two pitches -- that was it, the fastball and the slider. The slider would come out of his hand -- it was a strike -- then it would end up over your back shoelace. Slider, back shoelace. Slider, back shoelace. Slider, back shoelace. And his size was so different than anyone else. You're not used to it. Take any pitcher's release point, then add a foot and a half, and that's his."

• Jack Wilson, Pirates: He is 3-for-21 with seven strikeouts and one home run against Johnson. "You start with the appearance," he said. "He's 6-foot-10. When he throws, it's like he's right on top of you. He has a deadly slider and a changeup. It's an uncomfortable at-bat. I faced him when he was with the Diamondbacks, and he was pretty explosive with that 90 mph slider. It comes in at the same angle as the fastball. So you're gearing up for the fastball. You think it's the fastball, and you say, 'There it is,' and then it's gone. I think it's the greatest strikeout pitch ever, right up there with Nolan Ryan's fastball and curveball. Randy's slider might be the best slider in the history of the game."

What about the home run?

"I singled my first at-bat against a fastball, so I figured a slider had to be coming the next at-bat," Wilson said. "He threw one over my feet, but I got the bat head to it before it went down too far. When it goes down too far, it cannot be hit. I get excited at any home run I hit, but to hit a home run off Randy Johnson. That's something that you tell your children about. That's something you tell your grandchildren about. That's pretty special."

• Nate McLouth, Pirates: "I've never batted against him. That's one of those days where I didn't go knock on [Pirates manager John Russell's] door and tell him to put me in there," he said. "When I face him, I hope it's in spring training when the stats don't count."

• Placido Polanco, Tigers: He is 14-for-38 with six strikeouts against Johnson. "My approach against him is the same as against everyone else, but more against him: I try not to do too much," he said. "I'm so short, his release point is right at my eyes. I faced him a lot when I was with Arizona and I was with St. Louis. If you do too much, he's got you."

• Brian Roberts, Orioles: He is 2-for-18 against Johnson. "He still throws fairly hard," he said. "The toughest thing for me was thinking you were getting a heater in, then it's a slider, and there's not much time to figure out what's coming … but I did get two hits off him."

• Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: He is 2-for-3 against him with a home run. "I've enjoyed it, facing him," he said. "I never faced [Roger] Clemens, but I faced [Greg] Maddux and [John] Smoltz. Randy is a big guy. I can only imagine what he was like 10 years ago when he was throwing 98. But to be that big, and that durable, is a tribute to how hard he works."

What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you.

-- Former infielder Jeff Huson

• Juan Pierre, Dodgers: He is 5-for-31 against Johnson and has been hit three times. "I decline to talk about him," Pierre said politely through a Dodgers PR guy, "because I still have to hit against him."

• J.T. Snow, formerly of the Giants and Angels: He was 4-for-26 against Johnson and was hit in the head by Johnson 11 years ago in spring training. "Everyone's ESPN highlight nightmare," Snow said a year after being hit. Snow got his left wrist up in time to deflect a 97 mph fastball, but the ball hit him in his left eye. Snow said he remembers lying in the dirt, blood gushing from his eye. "It felt like I had been cold-cocked, like in a fight," he said. "All I could hear was my wife screaming in the stands."

"It was one of the worst things I've ever seen," said then-Giants manager Dusty Baker. "You know how a boa constrictor squeezes a mouse before he eats it? That's what J.T.'s eye looked like. It was that tight. If you had touched his eye, it would have popped out. I never thought he'd play again." Snow did, a tribute to the courage all good hitters have.

• Jeff Huson, former infielder for several teams: He faced Johnson twice; he walked once and struck out once. He put Johnson's intimidation best, comparing it to other sports: Most other sports don't have the fear or the danger that a hitter has facing Randy Johnson.

"What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you?" Huson said. "He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.