Giants' Johnson nearing return

Updated: September 14, 2009, 10:23 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- He hasn't thrown a pitch in relief since a fairly memorable ninth-inning cameo appearance in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But Randy Johnson could be headed for the bullpen in San Francisco as soon as the end of this week.

The Big Unit threw a simulated game before the Giants' regularly scheduled game with Colorado on Monday, then announced: "I feel I'm ready to go."

Johnson
Johnson

Johnson hasn't pitched since July 5 with what is still being described as a "left shoulder strain." But as the Unit himself said Monday, "I'm pitching with a torn labrum. It's not strained ... it's torn."

But at this point, with the days ticking off the calendar and the Giants 4½ games behind Colorado in the wild-card race heading into this series, Johnson feels he's healthy enough to help.

"I realize there are only about three weeks left," he said. "But maybe I can go out there [to the bullpen] and help, and even take a little relief off of the bullpen, because I know they're beat up. And we're playing some teams now that have a lot of left-handed hitters."

Johnson turned 46 years old last week. And his career -- like the Giants' season -- might not last beyond the next three weeks. So he has volunteered to pitch out of the 'pen. And that leads to this important historic-occasion alert:

If he gets into a game, it would make him the oldest Giants reliever in history. The current record-holder is Dolf Luque who worked in two games in 1935, a few months before his 45th birthday.

But before Johnson could pitch in a game, he needed to demonstrate to the Giants that he could still be effective. And his 48-pitch, two-"inning" simulated game -- in which only one ball was put in play -- was an important step in that direction.

"He should feel good about his session," manager Bruce Bochy said afterward. "He was pain-free. So we'll check on him tomorrow and see where we're at."

Bochy was non-committal about when Johnson might be activated, other than to rule out a return during the Colorado series, which ends Wednesday. Once the club has a better feel for how Johnson feels the day after this session, "we should know more [Tuesday] about what we're going to do."

Well, if it's up to the Unit, his days of pitching simulated games are done. Asked if he thought he needed another game like this one, he quipped: "I don't think I'm going to go from this stuff to being 25 again -- and knocking the catcher over."

He looked at this outing, he said, as just "the first step toward being activated. The next step is finding out when I'm going to pitch again. Hopefully, it will be in a real game."

Back when he was pitching in real games, the Unit was 8-6, with a 4.81 ERA, this season in 17 starts. Those eight wins included the 300th win of his career, back on June 4 in Washington.

That game feels like ancient history now. But it doesn't mean Johnson can't still be as intimidating as ever.

Probably the hardest "hit" of his simulated game, in fact, came when he drilled the first hitter he faced, outfielder John Bowker. Asked if that was some kind of purpose pitch, the Unit joked: "If it was a message, they'd probably all have welts on their back."

Giants' 22-year-old catcher Buster Posey -- he was one year old when Johnson made his major league debut with the Montreal Expos in 1988 -- caught the simulated game.

"He threw the ball well to both sides of the plate," Posey said. "He used his slider and change for strikes. It was fun for me to get the chance to catch him. He was coming in pretty good. I hope he feels good."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE