Time has arrived for Johnson to shine

Time has arrived for Johnson to shine

NEW YORK -- Back in the dawn of this season, during Spring Training, when the Yankees still counted a deep and veteran starting rotation as a blessing, a Major League scout for another team offered an interesting observation.

That rotation was welcoming Randy Johnson, who had a red-flag medical history (knee, back) and who would be turning 42 in September.

"The Yankees should use him sparingly," the scout had said, "and save him for the postseason. They have more than enough to get there. But that's when they'll need him; that's the reason they got him."

At the time, it was a sensible thought, prompted by the fresh memory of the 2004 playoffs, when New York's pitching collapsed under the weight of Boston's charge back in the American League Championship Series.

Of course, the Yankees needed all of the Big Unit just to make it here. But the "reason they got him" arrives on Friday night, in Game 3 of an all-even Division Series with the Angels.

Randy Johnson on the Yankee Stadium mound in October ... George Steinbrenner wasn't dreaming, after all.

After the Angels pulled out a 5-3 victory in Wednesday night's Game 2, their second baseman was asked about how dire it would have been to go to New York facing elimination against Johnson, "who has been so tough on you guys."

"Just us, huh?" Adam Kennedy responded. "He's had a career of being tough on everyone. He's a Hall of Fame pitcher."

Going for the Angels in a true fire-and-ice matchup will be right-hander Paul Byrd, whose typical fastball could be lapped by one of Johnson's.

Byrd, a 34-year-old righty all the way back from surgery that erased all of his 2003 season, thinks more aggressively than he pitches.

"Now we have a chance to close it out [in New York]," he said following Game 2 at Angel Stadium.

One of these teams will have the closing opportunity on Saturday, making Game 3 obviously pivotal. But there is more urgency for Johnson to send the Angels back into their funk.

After a game and a half of flat play during which all of their strategies and ploys backfired, the Angels reclaimed their mojo in the sixth inning on Wednesday. They hustled the Yankees into errors, bunted and produced their signature two-out hits.

Johnson has to again flip their off switch. A loss in Game 3 would be more ominous for the Yankees, who have Shawn Chacon lined up for Game 4 against veteran Angels left-hander Jarrod Washburn, who owned the American League's fourth-best ERA (3.20).

The Big Unit is just the one to bring the dominant game to unplug the Angels' small-ball shenanigans. Mike Scioscia is one manager who has never sheltered his left-handed batters from Johnson, but when he's on his "A" game, that can backfire.

Although the switch-hitting Jeff DaVanon may find his way into the starting lineup in place of Steve Finley, Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad are both immovable, and so too may be Kennedy.

While Johnson occasionally became tangled in the criticism aimed at the Yankees through much of the season's first half, his debut season in pinstripes bottom-lined as expected. He was the only member of that vaunted preseason rotation to not spend any time on the disabled list, won 17 games and still had most of his bullets, finishing second in the league with 211 strikeouts.

Oh, and he has done all right as a 42-year-old. Since making a wish and blowing out the candles on Sept. 10, he is 4-0, allowing seven runs in 30 innings. Included was a 2-1 victory over Baltimore on Sept. 21 that returned the Yankees into the AL East lead for keeps.

Overall, Johnson was undefeated in his last eight starts, pitching and acting like the ace the Yankees sought.

"He's been dominant," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "His presence is the way we used to look at him from across the field."

If Johnson needed any additional motivation, he can remind himself of his history in Division Series games. Although he cemented himself in postseason lore with his contributions to Arizona's 2001 championship run (5-0 in the NLCS and World Series), he has had a miserable time in the first tier of the playoffs.

Since 1995, he is 0-7 in Division Series games.

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