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Big Unit Looks For Big Answer Can Johnson Overcome Doubts, Fears? Red Sox Find Out Tonight

Before his back went bad before he was able to make only eight starts in defense of his 1995 Cy Young Award Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson could have authored a master’s thesis on how subliminal fear is supposed to work in baseball.

It’s supposed to work like this: You fear him.

You fear him very much.

He fears nobody. He fears nothing.

A major league hitter never would use such a highly charged word as fear. Major league hitters are more inclined to talk in terms of respect.

Yeah, it’s an issue of respect, all right. As in: “With all due respect to the fact Randy Johnson is on the pitcher’s mound this afternoon, I think I am suffering from a head/tooth/stomach/earache.”

Since we last saw the intimidating left-hander throw a pitch in a real game, though, the Fear Dynamic has abruptly shifted. Now it is Randy Johnson who must confront the possibility of waking up in the middle of a nightmare, Randy Johnson who is gingerly tiptoeing in the dark.

Tonight at 7:05 in the Kingdome, Johnson will embark on the latest and most critical phase of a comeback for which there are no long-term guarantees. And while it would be nice to report he is as feisty and insufferable as the main-event fighter at a Caesars weigh-in, the truth is, he’s got too much on his mind these days to play the fool.

“Obviously,” he said, “I’ve had more doubts than anybody. This is my profession. This is my career. This is my livelihood.”

It would be nice, too, to report the MVP of the ‘95 Miracle Mariners is ready to take on the world. The truth is, he isn’t even ready to travel it a few hours at a time.

“I still don’t feel 100 percent,” said Johnson, who got his last spring-training tune-up Sunday against the Lancaster JetHawks, the Mariners’ Class A affiliate in the California League. “After pitching in Lancaster - and sitting on a plane for 2 hours - there’s some irritation in my back and legs. But it’s less than what I’ve had in the past.”

Spring training was eventful for Johnson in that it was delightfully uneventful. Aside from that pitch to the Giants’ J.T. Snow that got away - the ball bounced off Snow’s hand and smashed his eye socket - the good news was out of the Cactus League was no news.

Johnson endured the usual aches and pains required to get his 6-foot-10 frame into flexible pitching shape, but he didn’t suffer any major setbacks.

And yet…

“I still haven’t pitched 250 innings in a season yet,” Johnson pointed out. “I still haven’t gone six innings in a game; I still haven’t made 100 pitches yet. The most I’ve thrown in a game is 85, and that’s nothing. I haven’t answered all my questions.

“I’m just curious if I’ll be able to get back out there and throw in the 90s again, with consistency and stamina in my back, to where I could go seven or eight innings: The type of games I’ve pitched in the past.

“That’s still unanswered.”

And it’ll remain unanswered regardless of what the radar gun reads tonight, for there is no way of knowing how ready Johnson will be for start No. 2 until he prepares to make start No. 2.

Meanwhile, Johnson is able to appreciate the poetic nuances of a 162-game schedule that finds him launching his 1997 comeback against the same team that forced him to shut down for the last five weeks of ‘96. The Mariners were at Boston on Aug. 24 when the Red Sox loaded the bases against Johnson and sent up the left-handed-hitting Darren Bragg, an ex-teammate.

Not since 1992 had Johnson given up a home run to a left-hander. The compact, spray-hitting Bragg, moreover, never will be confused (speaking of Johnson’s ex-teammates) with Tino Martinez.

Only Bragg didn’t do what comes naturally to a left-hander and bail out on Johnson’s hard slider. He held his ground, without fear, and compounded the pitcher’s injury with an insult: A grand slam.

“The circumstances that ended 1996,” Johnson concluded, “were not the way I liked it.”

Randy Johnson’s official order of business tonight will be to last six innings, depart with a lead, and give the bullpen a chance to seal the deal. Deep down, though, his agenda is more personal: He must conquer his fear of the unknown, and make it the best friend he once had.

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