September 30, 1997 in Sports

Back In A Groove Having Shed Self-Doubt, Johnson Has Returned To Cy Young Form

Gary Brooks Tacoma News-Tribune
 

A year ago at this time, Randy Johnson was worried about the impact of back surgery on his everyday life as a father and husband and not about his impact on the baseball diamond and the Seattle Mariners’ success.

Johnson’s performance this year has shown the surgery may have had a positive effext on his career.

And as Johnson prepares for his start in Wednesday’s first game of the American League Division Series against Baltimore at the Kingdome, he’s aware that he will be a huge factor in determining how far the Mariners go in the playoffs.

He is the toughest pitcher to hit in the American League, and with the Mariners’ rotation in order, he has the chance to put Seattle up early in the series and to close it out if necessary in a deciding game.

“It’s a big advantage for us,” said manager Lou Piniella. “You want the ace of your staff available to start the first game of the playoffs, no question. And know that he’s there if you’ve got a fifth game.”

Johnson’s return to ace left-hander status has gone through some very uncomfortable times.

His post-surgery days left a lot of questions.

“I don’t want to give you all the dramatics, but I can remember when I finally woke up and I had to go to the bathroom and I literally couldn’t get out of bed,” said Johnson, who had to roll on his side to relieve himself. “Then I tweaked my back just enough to where I was paralyzed and then I would have to let my back loosen up and relax, then I could roll back over.

“In situations like that, the last thing on my mind was pitching a ballgame. I was more wondering if I would be able to play with my children, would I be able to pick them up? The fear factor was there, but it slowly diminished when I stared doing my rehab.”

Johnson worked with a whole team of doctors, trainers and physical therapists to get back to the form he had shown in winning the Cy Young Award in 1995.

The rehabilitation process required baby steps, which can be a bit of a challenge for someone who stands 6-foot-10. Each step came with an unknown effect.

“Even after the surgery, there was so much uncertainty when I was going through my rehab,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could come back and be the pitcher I once was. Before the surgery, did I imagine I would be where I am right now? No. In the early stages of rehab, you think to yourself, ‘I can’t even move, how am I going to pitch?’

“I would have been pleased if I was a .500 pitcher. But I’m proudest of this year, winning 20 games and doing my part once again to help this team.”

Johnson’s shared a helping hand by putting together a career-best season.

“You look at my numbers in comparison to the year that I won the Cy Young,” Johnson said. “I was 18-2 with a 2.5 (earned run average). This year I’m 20-4 with a 2.3. Because I missed four games, I probably could have struck out 300 again this year. So I feel with the back surgery and all the hard work I’ve done, essentially, I feel probably a better pitcher this year than I ever have been.”

The surgery in the long run may even allow Johnson to extend his career a bit. It forced him to strengthen areas he hadn’t worried about before.

“I did so many things this past off-season that I’d never done before and they’ve made me a better pitcher,” Johnson said. “My balance was better this year than in the past because of the techniques I was using to strengthen my back. My body awareness was better. And my strength was better. I can’t thank the people that were involved in my recovery enough.”

While he has gotten through a season in which he will contend for the Cy Young Award again, it wasn’t as if once he got his first win out of the way or extended his pitch count for the first time that he thought he was completely healthy.

“I didn’t want to say I was back until at least the All-Star break,” said Johnson, who started the All-Star Game. “By that time I would have had maybe 100-plus innings and I would have fatigued my back enough in certain games that I would know how my back responded to that. After some games, I would feel that irritation and I would think ‘Oh, no, it’s back.’ Back when that first happened I was nervous because that was the same type of feeling I was getting when this first happened.

“Do I feel like I’m out of the woods now? Essentially, yes. But I’ll never take anything for granted anymore.”

He certainly won’t be taking the Orioles for granted, considering they have handed him two of his four losses this season and knocked him out earlier than anybody else in another, a five-inning, eight-walk no-decision at the Kingdome.

Redemption is an unnecessary motivation, though, according to Piniella.

“I don’t think Randy will need any motivation at all,” he said. “The importance of the game will be motivation enough.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

YOU MAKE THE CALL

Did Lou go to the bullpen too quickly? Should Blowers be starting at third? Can the Mariners win with just the long ball? You make the call.

We want your thoughts on the M’s - the good, the bad and the ugly - after every playoff game. Call 458-8800, ext. 9897 in Washington or (208) 765-8811, ext. 9897 in Idaho to comment - in 60 seconds or less - and look for them the next day in The Spokesman-Review.

Baltimore vs. Seattle

Game 1, Wednesday

Baltimore(Mussina 15-8) at Seattle (Johnson 20-4) TV: 5 p.m. (NBC)

Game 2, Thursday

Baltimore(Erickson 16-7) at Seattle(Moyer 17-5) TV: 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 3, Saturday

Seattle(Fassero 16-9) at Baltimore(Key 16-10), TBA

Game 4*, Sunday

Seattle at Baltimore, TBA

Game 5*, Monday

Seattle at Baltimore, TBA

*Games 4 and 5 if necessary

This sidebar appeared with the story: YOU MAKE THE CALL Did Lou go to the bullpen too quickly? Should Blowers be starting at third? Can the Mariners win with just the long ball? You make the call. We want your thoughts on the M’s - the good, the bad and the ugly - after every playoff game. Call 458-8800, ext. 9897 in Washington or (208) 765-8811, ext. 9897 in Idaho to comment - in 60 seconds or less - and look for them the next day in The Spokesman-Review.

Baltimore vs. Seattle Game 1, Wednesday Baltimore(Mussina 15-8) at Seattle (Johnson 20-4) TV: 5 p.m. (NBC) Game 2, Thursday Baltimore(Erickson 16-7) at Seattle(Moyer 17-5) TV: 1 p.m. (ESPN) Game 3, Saturday Seattle(Fassero 16-9) at Baltimore(Key 16-10), TBA Game 4*, Sunday Seattle at Baltimore, TBA Game 5*, Monday Seattle at Baltimore, TBA

*Games 4 and 5 if necessary


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