Commentary

Johnson as great as ever in 300th win

Reaching the exclusive milestone just a result of Big Unit's prolonged brilliance

Originally Published: June 4, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- It was a baseball game to stow in your favorite time capsule, a baseball game to freeze in your memory bank.

Well, maybe not the baseball game itself. That one got a little wet and a little messy. But the image of the man on the mound -- that's a sight we shouldn't forget.

So this is what a 300-game winner looks like.

On a waterlogged Thursday in June, Mr. Randall David Johnson, the greatest 6-foot-10 left-hander of our (or anybody's) lifetime, added his name to the exalted 300-Win Club with a 5-1 San Francisco Giants victory over everybody's favorite victims, the Washington Nationals.

There are 23 other men, five other left-handers and (with the abrupt release of Tom Glavine in Atlanta) no other active pitchers in that 300-Win Club. But it's very possible the next member of that club hasn't even been born yet.

So savor this one. Savor the moment. Savor the feat. And savor the brilliance of the man whose career will now be defined by this magical round number.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
James Lang-US PRESSWIRERandy Johnson celebrated his accomplishment after the bullpen shut down the Nationals over the final three innings.

For weeks now, Johnson has been downplaying the meaning of this historic deed. And even as he sat in the dugout in the ninth inning, watching closer Brian Wilson finish this one off, his expression was so stone-faced, you'd have thought this was win No. 48, not win No. 300.

But then Wilson pumped strike three past Washington's Wil Nieves. Teammates began pounding the Big Unit on the back. And when Randy Johnson popped up the dugout steps, his arm around his son, Tanner, the smile on his face let you know this was not just another night in Unit-hood.

"I think it kind of hit me when I walked on the field," Johnson said afterward, as relaxed in front of the microphones as you'll ever find him. "It's a long-range achievement. It's not a one-game or one-year achievement. It's a career achievement. … So I'll be thinking about this one for a long time. I'm glad I won't be pitching again for a few days."

At 45 years and 9 months old, Johnson is the second-oldest 300-game winner ever (behind only Phil Niekro, who got there at 46). But when the skies over Washington finally parted -- after a mere 22 hours of monsoon madness -- and the Big Unit finally made it to the mound, he reminded us all one more time what a formidable force he's been these past 21 years.

He allowed just two hits in six remarkably efficient innings. And we've sure seen that before. It was the 42nd time in 597 starts that Johnson has gone that many innings and given up that few hits.

He even took a no-hitter into the fifth inning -- the 43rd time he has done that in his relentlessly unhittable career. Asked later whether the idea of a no-hitter -- in a 300th win -- ever danced through his head, Giants manager Bruce Bochy spoke for the planet when he replied: "With all he's done? Sure, it does cross your mind."

It took a broken-bat Elijah Dukes single up the middle to bust up that no-hitter. And it took a sixth-inning Edgar Renteria throwing error to give the Nationals their only run.

But that still means Johnson allowed zero earned runs -- making him the first pitcher since Niekro in 1985 to give up no earned runs in win No. 300. For the record, that would be the 98th time in those 597 starts that this man went six or more and forgot to allow an earned run. Yeah, the 98th.

"And the thing is, he's reinvented himself, too," Bochy said. "He's not out there now trying to power his way or bull his way through lineups. He's more of a pitcher now."

When a man reaches the top of a mountain this special, it's natural to look out and survey all he has done to get here. But in Randy Johnson's case, what hasn't he done?

He has spun a no-hitter in his 20s and a perfect game in his 40s. He has won Game 6 and Game 7 of the same World Series (2001). He has collected five Cy Young trophies.

He has beaten all 30 teams. He has won games in 42 ballparks. He has unfurled a 20-strikeout game, two 19-strikeout games, and 25 other games in which he whiffed 15 or more hitters.

He has struck out Rickey Henderson 30 times and Sammy Sosa 25 times. He has punched out a father-and-son combination (Gary and Daryle Ward) twice apiece. He has ripped off five straight 300-strikeout seasons.

He has beaten eight Cy Young Award winners. He has beaten two Perez brothers (Melido and Carlos). And he has beaten a cast of pitchers who spanned a hundred generations -- from Dave LaPoint to Daisuke Matsuzaka, from Danny Darwin to Daniel Cabrera, from Teddy Higuera to Ted Lilly.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesThe rain kept the fans away, but it didn't prevent Randy Johnson from going six strong innings for win No. 300.
Oh, and one more thing. Randy Johnson has spent the past two decades pretty much terrorizing those poor hitters who had to stand 60 feet away from him.

"There's nothing fun about facing him," said the Nationals' Adam Dunn, whose 0-for-3 day against the Unit made him 1-for-15 lifetime, with eight whiffs, against this man. "There's nothing fun about it at all. I mean, he's 8 feet tall, and when he comes from the side like that, it looks like the ball's coming from first."

Hmmm, "first," he said? As in first base?

"No," Dunn replied. "The first row."

As it turned out, though, the most significant pitch Dunn saw all day Thursday wasn't even delivered by Johnson himself.

It was thrown by Wilson, with two outs in the eighth inning, the bases loaded and Johnson's one-run lead (at the time) looking almost as shaky as Tony La Russa's Twitter account.

With Johnson back in the trainer's room, watching on TV, Wilson ran the count to 3 and 2, then whooshed a fastball up there that appeared to be more shin-high than knee-high.

Dunn flipped his bat away and started toward first with what looked like a game-tying, milestone-obliterating, bases-full walk. But it was then that plate ump Tim Timmons' hand pumped toward the drizzle-saturated sky.

So an inning-ending strike three went into the books. And No. 300 was just a three-run, ninth-inning Giants rally, and three ninth-inning Brian Wilson punchouts away from being official.

Afterward, Dunn ascended to new diplomatic heights as he dodged all attempts to elicit any second-guessing of Timmons' call. Asked if he thought there were any (ahem) historic implications that might have swayed Timmons to call that pitch a strike, Dunn replied: "Come on. Tim's not going to think that quick. He thought it was a strike. And therefore, it was a strike."

When Dunn's dogged media inquisitors then helpfully pointed out that because it was called a strike, it had allowed him to play a "different" kind of part in baseball history, Dunn replied: "If that goes down in history, then baseball needs to have new history."

"I'll give you this," Dunn conceded, finally. "If he doesn't win another game the rest of his career, then I'll say it's a historic. But there's a gooooood chance he's probably going to win another one."

Johnson I've played 21-22 years. I'm 45 years old. I've come upon 300 wins. And I'm thinking, I've only got 211 more to catch Cy Young.

-- Randy Johnson
Yeah, could be. And 50 years from now -- or possibly even 15 minutes from now -- no one will ever recall that pivotal pitch. And even more certainly, they won't remember the 2.8 trillion rain drops that seemed to represent even a greater threat to Johnson's rendezvous with history.

Thanks to those rain drops, the Unit spent somewhere in the vicinity of 12 hours hanging out in his clubhouse Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon waiting for the deluge to end. And as it turned out, the waiting really was the hardest part of this extravaganza.

"It was difficult," Johnson said afterward, "because you knew what was at stake. And you just want everything to go well. I mean, I told everybody who came to the game, when they got their tickets, `You've got to read the fine print.' It says no win is guaranteed."

In this case, just getting to the mound wasn't even guaranteed. But finally, after nearly four hours of delays the night before and another 36-minute pregame hold-up Thursday afternoon, the tarp came off. So out came the Unit to begin his quest.

Let the record show it was 5:17 p.m. local time -- or 22 hours and 12 minutes after this game was originally scheduled to begin. It would be a stretch to claim a thousand people were in the seats. And exactly 13 customers occupied the entire section directly behind home plate.

This was the day Randy Johnson had waited all his baseball life for?

But once he got out there, he was zoned in, and none of that mattered. It took him only 78 pitches to zip through six innings. And had it not been for what might be the most acrobatic play of his career, Johnson might even have made it through all nine innings.

His Cirque du Soleil act ensued when pinch-hitter Anderson Hernandez led off the sixth inning with a one-hopper back to the box. Johnson swatted it with his glove, spun to his left, grabbed, lunged and fired to first base for a spectacular out. "My senior moment," he would quip later.

He made it through the inning. But afterward he told the trainer that he'd bruised his shoulder. So he headed for the nearest ice pack, and the bullpen had to sweat through the final nine outs before this milestone moment was official.

But when the bruise subsides, it will be the magnitude of his feat that will linger. And even Johnson himself seemed to get swept up in it.

"I think I've got a greater appreciation for the game now," he said, "probably over the last 10 or 15 years. Because when I was doing something and I was being compared to somebody else -- Sandy Koufax or Steve Carlton, people whom I've met, that I was actually in awe of when I had an opportunity to meet them -- or Nolan [Ryan], who I feel like I have a good friendship with … when your name is in the same sentence with them … I have a greater appreciation for what I'm doing, because I know now how hard it is to get there."

Well, he's there, all right. And he's about to discover the coolest thing yet about that 300-Win Club is:

Once you've checked in, you don't ever check out. And the more Randy Johnson contemplated that thought, the more overwhelming it got.

"I've played 21-22 years," he said. "I'm 45 years old. I've come upon 300 wins. And I'm thinking, I've only got 211 more to catch Cy Young."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com