Thursday, May 06, 1999

Gutty Casey stands tall vs. Johnson




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sean Casey fears no evil. He could have called in sick Wednesday night — “My head felt like it was ready to explode,” — or he could have announced a sudden twinge in his hamstring. He might have ducked Randy Johnson the way so many hitters do, for the sake of his safety, his sanity and his batting average.

        But the mighty Casey was curious. He wanted to measure himself against Arizona's lengthy left-hander, despite the obvious drawback of being a left-handed hitter. He wanted to see first-hand the stuff that has made so many other men tremble.

        “I'm in the shower last night, and Pete Harnisch says to me, "Can you hit right-handed?'” Casey said Wednesday afternoon. “I took one round of batting practice right-handed in spring training. But I still think my best chance is as a lefty.”

        Events would prove him comparatively prescient. Though Johnson held the Reds to four hits in a 5-1 Diamondbacks victory, Casey had a single in four at-bats. Considering that left-handed batters have collected two hits in 25 at-bats against Johnson this year, Casey's hit constituted a small step for man but a real breakthrough against the Big Unit.

        The remarkable thing is not that Johnson is so dominant against lefties but that any of them dare face him in the first place. He stands 6-foot-10, throws virtually sidearm and regularly registers 100 on the radar guns. To a left-handed hitter, Johnson's release point appears to approximate point-blank range.

        “It was weird,” Casey said. “I kept thinking every pitch was low, because he was so big. I've never seen it from that angle before.”

History of intimidation
       

        Facing Johnson for the first time is an experience few hitters forget and fewer wish to repeat. Johnson's first pitch to Larry Walker in the 1997 All-Star Game was close enough to convince the Colorado outfielder to become a switch-hitter on the spot. When Philadelphia's John Kruk faced Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game, he counted himself fortunate to survive.

        After Johnson's first pitch sailed perilously close to Kruk's head, the petrified Phillie struck out on three pitches, bailing out of the batter's box as if he were taking cover during a grenade drill.

        Sean Casey is more courageous. When he stepped up to the plate in the first inning Wednesday, his intestinal fortitude reflected by a .356 batting average, Casey conveyed purpose rather than panic. Johnson's first pitch was a called strike, the second produced a lunging miss, but Casey succeeded in hitting a foul ball on his second swing and prolonged the at-bat to six pitches.

        “I fouled off a slider,” Casey said, “and he was like 10 feet from me when he got the (new) ball. He gave me this unbelievable stare and I said, "Oh, God.'”

        Casey subsequently grounded meekly back to the pitcher's mound. He took a called third strike when he came up again in the fourth inning and fell behind in the sixth, no balls and two strikes.

        This time, though, after taking Johnson's waste pitch for a ball, Casey lined a solid single to left field. In the ninth, he grounded out on a slow hopper to third base. On balance, not all that bad a night.

        “I felt good against him,” Casey said later, in front of his locker. “I felt I was picking up his slider pretty decent. I wasn't intimidated up there. I was pretty much battling. It felt like a war every at-bat.”

No backing down
        This is more than some guys can say. Such distinguished left-handed hitters as Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly and Rafael Palmeiro customarily avoided Johnson during his days in the American League.

        “The only (other) time I've ever faced him was at the ESPN Zone (restaurant) in Baltimore,” Casey said, referring to a video simulation game. “He was pretty tough even then. I think I might have popped up a couple of times. I got out of there after one round.”

        Real reality, Casey said, was more challenging than virtual reality. The biggest test, though, was being willing to try.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

DIAMONDBACKS 5, REDS 1
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE