Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Johnson beats Maddux at his game


Lefty's softer side too tough for Braves

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        PHOENIX — Randy Johnson is to Greg Maddux as Nolan Ryan was to Tom Seaver. Johnson is stuff. Maddux is surgery. Johnson is gas. Maddux is gears. Johnson is the most gifted pitcher of his generation. Maddux, on balance, has been better.

        Matching the two men in Tuesday's National League Championship Series opener was an act of inspired casting. It didn't do much, however, for stereotypes.

        Johnson beat Maddux at his own exacting game, tossing a three-hit, 11-strikeout, 2-0 shutout that was both characteristically dominant and uncharacteristically nuanced. Arizona's left-handed skyscraper dialed down the thermostat on his high heat, changing speeds, staying ahead, and for once was as artful as he was awesome.

        “He strikes out so many hitters, sometimes there's not a lot of action,” said Arizona second baseman Craig Counsell. “But it was fun today. I mean, you kind of felt like you were with him and you could see that he was on with everything he was doing. He was throwing a slider for a strike to get ahead in the count. He was throwing fastballs away for strikes consistently. I mean, it was a great performance by him.”

        Great as it was, it was also disorienting. It was as if Aerosmith appeared in concert as a string quartet. It was reminiscent of Wilt Chamberlain forsaking his points to pursue the NBA's assists title. It was the Johnson nearly no one knows.

        “The first thing you think of with Randy Johnson, you think gas, you think hard,” Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles said. “(But) he really pitched today, didn't rely much on his 97-98 (mph fastball). Today, he kept us off-balance.”

        Johnson has led the major leagues in strikeouts eight times, and he has not done so because of his subtlety.His approach has always been simple and straightforward, more like that of a short reliever than a starting pitcher. He has always sought to blow the ball past people. If that didn't work, he'd throw harder.

        “At times,” Arizona manager Bob Brenly said, “Randy will try to overpower the ball and that's when his mechanics fall apart a little bit. Today, he was just in a real nice rhythm. He wasn't trying to muscle his pitches. He was allowing himself to get into a good position to release the ball and he was hitting his spots consistently.”

        Through eight innings, Johnson held the Braves to one hit (that a Chipper Jones infield single that looked suspiciously like an out on replays). Giles twice hit the ball to the warning track in right field — once, he said, with a bat broken during a previous plate appearance — but the contest was otherwise as suspenseful as cruise control.

        “Randy was great today,” Braves outfielder Brian Jordan said. “To be honest, this is the best I've ever seen him pitch — and I've faced him a lot. He was getting ahead, making us swing at his pitch. He was dominant.”

        Citing the likelihood that he will have to make another playoff start against Atlanta, Johnson declined to be drawn into a discussion of his pitching strategy. Having ended a personal streak of seven straight postseason setbacks, Johnson was happy just to have a new line of questioning.

        “Assuming someone might say, "Is this a monkey off your back?' this is more like a gorilla — King Kong,” Johnson said.

        When Johnson pitches as he did Tuesday, there isn't a primate on the planet that can give him problems. When he pitches like this, baseball is almost unfair.

        “You're going to have to have your A game,” Giles said. “If you have your A-minus game, you're done.”

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.


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