PHOENIX -- Randy Johnson can't throw 100 miles per hour anymore, but that doesn't matter. The 43-year-old lefthander can still pitch, in Mike Lowell's words, at "a ridiculous level" and dominate a game.
Oh, sure, guys such as Lowell, who drove in Boston's only run in Arizona's 5-1 win yesterday, are out there with the bat in their hands trying to get a hit off the Big Unit. But at the same time, those sluggers admire a guy who has been around for a long time and at times has been the most feared pitcher in the game. It wasn't long ago Johnson was the big, gangly, uncoordinated kid pitching for the Expos who had no idea where his 100-m.p.h. offerings were going. He was at times reckless. And when he came in high and tight, intimidation set in.
"I think he's throwing the ball a lot better than he did last year in New York," said Lowell. "To me, his fastball had that oomph back in it from the days when he was pitching here the first time around. That's how good he still is. I mean, I was thumbing through the media guide the other day and he's a guy who had over 300 strikeouts like four years in a row. I mean, that's ridiculous. He's so unique in that nobody has that type of arm angle."
Jonathan Papelbon was equally impressed by Johnson's effort.
"You want to watch the best that ever pitched and learn from them," Papelbon said. "He's 43 and he can still throw like that? That's remarkable, but that's what makes him a Hall of Famer and a 300-game winner and all that stuff. He's pretty special. Yeah, you want to beat him but you just admire him and what he's been able to do in this game."
The Big Unit, 16-7 with a 4.47 ERA vs. Boston, pulled to within 16 victories of 300 with a 284-149 record.
It is a treat to watch Johnson and fellow 40-somethings Roger Clemens and Tom Glavine, because they may be the last of the 300-game winners for quite some time.
Winning 300 games is so impressive because of a number of factors, including longevity, health, and desire. Also, with so many specialized roles in the bullpen, managers tend to pull starters earlier, leading to more and more no-decisions.
"I remember when Greg Maddux got to 300, I don't think that anyone was saying Glavine or I would do it," said Johnson. "Back then they were talking about younger guys like Johan Santana, or Mark Prior or Kerry Wood having a shot at it if they could stay healthy. I mean, if we're both lucky enough to accomplish that, I do believe someone else will come along at some point and do it. It's about health and wanting to pitch until you're older. It's about being on a winning team so you can win the games. A lot of guys aren't on winning teams. That's a huge factor.
"I know it's tough to look at guys who could do it because it's very hard to do."
When asked about former teammates Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, Johnson said, "Both of those guys are on winning teams. They are on teams who can hit and score runs. If they stay healthy and they want to keep pitching, who knows?"
Terry Francona said it best before the game -- Johnson is still one of the few pitchers who causes managers to adjust their lineups. It is why he omitted David Ortiz and J.D. Drew from the lineup, feeling both players would have difficulty against Johnson.
Though Johnson had two 17-win seasons with the Yankees, those weren't happy times for him.
For as much as his former teammate, Schilling, has loved the pressure of Boston, Johnson hated the microscope of New York. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman dealt him back to the Diamondbacks in the offseason because Johnson told him he didn't want to pitch in New York anymore.
He has returned to a far better situation with less pressure, where he can be the team's No. 2 starter behind Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb. He's here to win his 300th game, sometime over the next two seasons, the length of his contract. After next season, Johnson will likely ride off into the sunset.
It's funny, but when he struck out Coco Crisp in the third inning, he was tied with Clemens for career strikeouts (4,611), and then proceeded to pass the Rocket for second all time. He fanned nine Red Sox over six innings. Johnson has shown he has bounced back pretty well from offseason back surgery.
"I feel great now. I really do. I'm just glad I got to win a game before the home fans here," said Johnson, who is now 1-2 with a 4.75 ERA in six starts at Chase Field. "I had pitched some quality games but I was wondering if I was going to win at home. I like going on the road but I like sleeping in my own bed."
Johnson enjoys passing his wisdom on to his younger teammates.
"The thing that we took out of this three- game series is that this is an extremely young team and hopefully what we got out of this is that we saw the best team in baseball, what it takes to win," said Johnson. "You can't give them extra outs. You have to do the little things right. And they competed against a real good team. They took two out of three against us but we pitched, we battled. They know what it takes now to compete against the best. It doesn't get any easier because we go to New York and then to Baltimore. All American League teams are capable of doing the little things. So we're inexperienced along the way. It's important to allow the young guys to see what it takes. That's why the Red Sox and Yankees are who they are."
He was impressed with Daisuke Matsuzaka and his repertoire, and just as impressed that his young hitters didn't cower to a pitcher who has received so much international fame.
"After watching the first two games, I didn't need to be reminded that the Red Sox are pretty explosive," said Johnson. "I had a game plan and stuck to it and I made my pitches. I pitched away from contact, which I felt was in my best interests.
"It's definitely a morale booster. To go up against someone of that stature who's getting a lot of publicity. To know they can battle against that type of pitcher. You see [Josh] Beckett dominated us. [Julian] Tavarez pitched pretty well. Pitchers like that in the National League -- you just don't see as many of them."
You don't see many like The Unit, either.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.