Against Sox, Johnson was Unit of old
Yankees left-hander brought back memories of past in Chicago
CHICAGO -- Randy Johnson's greatness was more than a memory on Wednesday night -- for six innings.
And whatever else happened after that, he was still what the New York Yankees needed him to be: the winning pitcher.
But for those six innings Johnson was the Big Unit again; against a powerful team, the Chicago White Sox, in a hitter's park, U.S. Cellular Field. The fastball was in the mid-90s and thrown to precise locations, the slider was diving toward the back foot of the right-handed hitters.
For that period of time, shoved aside was the fact that Johnson hadn't struck anybody out in his last two starts, that he was pushing 43 and that he was scuffling along with a 5.11 ERA. He was unhittable again.
All the White Sox could muster against Johnson for those six innings was a walk by third baseman Joe Crede in the second inning. There were no balls hit with extreme force against him. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi hit a ball to the warning track in right in the fourth, but you never thought for a second that it was trouble. Johnson struck out five over the first six innings, he threw only 71 pitches in those six innings, he was right there, a dominant pitcher reborn on a humid South Side August night.
For more than a moment, you contemplated the fact that Major League Baseball's current and longest no-hitter drought might now be broken. And who better to break it than Johnson, who threw the last one, on May 18, 2004, a perfect game for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
You were reminded, too, of what New York Yankees manager Joe Torre had said before the game. Torre was asked if, after all the ups and downs of Johnson's season, he still expected Johnson to succeed.
"Every time out," Torre replied. "Every time he takes the ball, on any given night, he can still dominate a game, as far as I'm concerned."
That was completely correct -- for six innings. That was more than enough time for the Yankees to build a seven-run lead as they pounded away relentlessly against Jon Garland, who had not lost a decision in more than two months. But Johnson's bout of renewed greatness ended in the seventh and in a hurry.
Iguchi led off the seventh with Chicago's first hit, a single through the left side. Jim Thome walked. Paul Konerko hit a ground-rule double that scored one run. Jermaine Dye hit a double that scored another. The no-hitter was over and so was Johnson's evening, four up and none down in the seventh.
Ron Villone replaced him. As Johnson left the field, many of the 39,406 citizens on hand stood and applauded him. Whether this was a tribute to his night's work, or more likely a tribute to the work of an entire career, it was a suitable and respectful gesture from the Chicago audience.
The Yankees ended up narrowly escaping with a 7-6 victory, after the White Sox rallied for four runs in the eighth against Kyle Farnsworth. You could not help but think that just a few years ago, after those unhittable and efficient six innings, Randy Johnson would have gone the distance. Maybe he wouldn't have produced a no-hitter, but he would have won going away and the bullpen would have had a full night of rest.
But here he still gave the Yankees what was required; a winning start one night after they had suffered a truly difficult loss.
"I'm just happy with wins," Johnson said. "I'm going to be 43 next month, and that's all that matters."
That was Torre's view, as well.
"He was great, he was great," Torre said of Johnson. "He gave us what we needed."
Johnson said he was not disappointed that the no-hitter disappeared as long as the victory remained.
"It's fun to be on that roll," was as far as he would go in savoring the six hitless innings.
Torre said that he thought a long Yankees top of the seventh might have led to Johnson losing sharpness in the bottom of the inning, but Johnson said that was not it. The first hit against him came on a fastball that, unlike the fastballs he was throwing in the first six innings, was simply not well located.
The victory was the thing. Johnson kept returning to, noting along the way that he already had a no-hitter and a perfect game.
"Anything that happens on a day that I pitch, beyond winning a game -- pitching a no-hitter, striking out 20 -- it's just a bonus," Johnson said with a smile.
In the end, it is this sort of performance that validates Johnson's presence with the Yankees. And it is not the six no-hit innings, but the victory itself that makes the difference.
Torre touched on that essential expectation when he was asked what was different for Johnson in this outing as opposed to some of his recent struggles.
"He got people out," the manager replied. "I don't know what to tell you. He threw strikes. He had better command.
"Randy is obviously a Hall of Famer and every time he takes the ball you expect to win."
That expectation was solidly met Wednesday night. Maybe absolute greatness over nine innings is no longer Randy Johnson's lot. But winning games, that is still well within his considerable reach.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.