SEATTLE - Randy Johnson has the longest reach in baseball, but the Baltimore Orioles are beyond his grasp.
"I can't put a finger on it," said the 6-foot-10 ace of the Seattle Mariners. "I've got a phobia about the Orioles or something."
Johnson is 20-2 against the rest of baseball this year, and 0-3 against Baltimore. The Orioles have won all four of the games Johnson has started against them this season, most recently Wednesday's 9-3 American League Division Series opener, and consequently assume command of the best-of-five playoff.
They did it with a lineup of little-known role players, while some of their most recognizeable names sat on the bench. On a night when such notables Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and B.J. Surhoff served as defensive replacements for such obscurities as Jerome Walton, Jeff Reboulet and Jeffrey Hammonds, the Orioles knocked the Big Unit down to the approximate size of a batting tee.
"They probably get up for me more than any other team," Johnson said. "They've had success against me. They're not quote-unquote intimidated against me."
Not in the least. The Orioles finished Johnson in five innings Wednesday night, his shortest outing since he faced them on May 18. He struck out three, walked four, and spent so much time behind in the count that he encouraged them to wait for his mistakes.
Which was pretty much exactly what Davey Johnson had in mind.
"The reason you go with a right-handed lineup is they're more patient (against the left-handed Johnson). They're going to look for something they can drive," the Orioles manager explained. "They're not going to be hacking at the first thing they see."
Managers routinely stack their lineups with right-handed hitters against Seattle's large lefty, so much so that left-handed hitters logged only 77 at-bats against Johnson all season. The few left-handed hitters who face Johnson regularly - Anaheim's Jim Edmonds, Baltimore's Brady Anderson, Boston's Mo Vaughn - must overcome the impression that his slider's target is their temple, and the fear that his control is deliberately flawed.
Palmeiro is 1-for-21 lifetime against Johnson, and did not bat against him all year. Neither did Alomar. Neither did Surhoff. These three players accounted for 29 percent of Baltimore's runs scored during the regular season, 33 percent of their runs batted in and 36 percent of their home runs. Wednesday, they represented bench strength. Davey Johnson said he knew that sitting these standout players effectively "put my neck on the chopping block," but he also knew it was the percentage play.
"Robby really wasn't an option at second base," he said. "Raffy understood. He wants to play, (but) he wasn't heartbroken. We have talked about this all year long. For various reasons, he has bot been patient against left-handed pitching . . . The toughest (decision) was B.J. (Surhoff) B.J.'s probably my favorite player. I like to see him play."
Where managers earn their money is in ignoring their personal preferences to identify the greater good. Davey Johnson surely deserved a raise Wednesday.
Hammonds, starting in left field in place of Surhoff, scored Baltimore's first two runs after working Johnson for walks.
Reboulet, starting at second base ahead of Alomar, executed a two-strike sacrifice bunt that facilitated the Orioles' four-run fifth inning. (Eric Davis following with a two-run, one-hop single over the head of third baseman Mike Blowers).
Jerome Walton, playing in place of Palmeiro, contributed nothing of note, but neither did he get in the way. He left the game when Johnson did, following the top of the fifth inning.
"I feel like I need to redeem myself," Randy Johnson said afterward. "I know how much people depend on me to get us off on the right foot and I've put us in a little bit of a hole."
A big hole, probably. If the Big Unit can't cure his Bird phobia, Seattle's season may soon be over.