Johnson still reigns in Seattle

Johnson still reigns in Seattle

SEATTLE -- Randy Johnson's still big in this town, and we're not just talking about his 6 feet and 10 inches or his lofty legacy.

The nameplate above his locker in the Safeco Field visitors' clubhouse simply says, "41. Big Unit."

Visions of the now-Yankee's dominance for the Mariners in their monumental playoff drive 10 years ago still grace the JumboTron at the house that Johnson helped build.

Every night, this yard is amped on Starbucks house blend and intermittent video memories of Johnson's once-masterful mullet and always-stupefying stuff.

So the 41-year-old drink of ice water comes back and conquers the place and its newly anointed royalty for a night.

Shocker.

Johnson tried to play cool veteran guy all week and deny that he had any extra motivation to beat Felix Hernandez, the 19-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind who quietly traveled the 30 miles from Triple-A Tacoma a few weeks ago and has not so quietly taken hold of the baseball world since.

Felix is already known as Felix here, just like Randy being Randy, and he already has a nickname, "King Felix."

The kid also brought the credentials of a serious prodigy to Wednesday night's hyped matchup. He had pitched at least seven innings in four of his five starts since his Aug. 4 debut and had 38 strikeouts in 36 innings and a 1.75 ERA.

But Johnson said he never cares who he's pitching against, and he still said he didn't care after beating Hernandez with seven scoreless innings, seven strikeouts and the most emotion he's displayed since the winter mega-trade that put him in pinstripes.

In other words, the passion to pitch that surfaced in the middle innings when Johnson could be seen prancing off the mound and yelling, "Let's go!" after every strikeout was just the culmination of being back in Seattle and being pumped up about a mechanical correction that has him on the right track as the serious season starts.

This all according to Johnson, of course.

"It's the place where I was given the opportunity to throw every five days," Johnson said. "This was where it all kind of started. And I think the game I pitched today was coming. I'm just looking for some consistency."

That's what the Mariners have already gotten in bushels from Hernandez, who was brilliant, as he has been all month. He gave up four hits in eight innings, struck out seven and was victimized by two bad pitches that ended up solo home runs by Robinson Cano and Gary Sheffield.

"I was very impressed," Alex Rodriguez said. "He's got good stuff and he's very poised."

But Johnson was better, which prompted a bunch of seasoned baseball minds to practically scream the theme of the night in unison.

"It's the changing of the guard," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "but I think Randy was saying, 'It might be the changing of the guard, but I'm not done yet.'"

"Randy brought his No. 1 stuff tonight," added Mariners hitting coach Don Baylor. "That's a mark of the pitcher that he is. He had something to prove tonight, too, that the old man isn't done."

Heck, even the "King" knew who was Boss.

"He did a great job," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "He pitched a great game. Pitching against him was an honor. It was a great joy. Even though we lost, it was great to be out there against him."

Chances are contending American League teams in September won't share Hernandez's giddiness about the glory of it all if they catch the Unit with the same stuff he had Wednesday.

Remember how unbeatable the Yankees seemed when they hauled in A-Rod and Sheff, jacked their payroll up to gross national product level and then added Unit to shore up their only weakness, starting pitching?

Well, maybe Johnson's atypical 12-8 record and 4.20 ERA entering Wednesday night's game had clouded those memories a bit, but one earned run in his last 15 innings seemed to be bringing those thoughts back, especially now that the Yanks have seized the AL Wild Card lead.

"That's the best I have seen Randy in a long time," said Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, who's been watching Randy for a very long time.

"He's pretty good anyway, but he was really on top of his game tonight."

How on top?

Consider this: When asked about how Hernandez pitched, Torre was quite verbose with his compliments. He started his praise with the requisite, "He's special, there's no doubt."

When asked how Johnson pitched, Torre's initial response was a shake of the head and a "now this is the same guy who ruined me in the 2001 World Series" laugh.

Thanks for the memories, indeed.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.