Big Unit sees improvement vs. Angels

Big Unit notes improvement

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson knows he still has a long way to go in his rehab from back surgery, but he is definitely pleased with his progress.

Johnson allowed just one hit -- a homer by Gary Matthews Jr. -- in three innings of work against the Angels on Saturday afternoon.

It was Johnson's second Cactus League outing -- he faced the Rockies on Monday -- and the big left-hander increased his inning total from 1 1/3 to three and his pitch count from 33 to 43.

"The more I get out there, the sharper I'm going to feel and the more confidence I'm going to get," said Johnson.

While it seems all but certain that Johnson will not be ready for his first turn in the rotation, he and the D-backs maintain they are only focused on his next outing.

Because the D-backs have an off-day on Tuesday, each starting pitcher will get an extra day's rest, which means Johnson's next start will likely come Friday against the Rangers at Tucson Electric Park. Arizona manager Bob Melvin said he would sit down with Johnson and discuss his upcoming schedule.

"You just want to see improvement in certain areas, and today there was improvement in a lot of different categories," Johnson said. "So my next time out, I look for some improvement on stamina and location and jump to pitching four innings hopefully and not making too many mistakes."

One of the mistakes that Johnson made was a 2-1 fastball to Matthews that wound up on the left-field berm for the only hit and run against him on the day. It was a three-run homer by Chris Iannetta that foiled Johnson against the Rockies.

"The home run kind of came in the same situation as in Colorado," Johnson said. "Came behind in the count. You can expect those kind of things to happen. There's still a long ways to go. It's encouraging to at least get out there and throw three quality innings."

Johnson participated in some limited pitcher fielding practice a couple of days before the start, but has yet to swing a bat. Last year, when he was also coming off surgery to repair a herniated disk, Johnson felt he may have jumped into those things a little too early.

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"It's just a matter of being a little bit wiser about going about my business," he said.

Johnson threw some good sliders, which encouraged him since that has not been a pitch that has come along quickly for him in the past.

"My slider will get better as my arm strength builds," Johnson said. "And so, inevitably, the more I play catch, the more I get on the mound and throw side sessions and the more I get out there and actually pitch in a game the stronger your arm gets. And the stronger your arm is the more effective all these other pitches are as well."

If Johnson was disappointed in something Saturday it was that he didn't meet his pitch limit of 50. He was concerned that by not getting to 50 it will make the jump to 65 in his next start that much harder.

"If I'm not going to achieve that pitch count today, now the increment goes a little bit higher and my next start it's actually more pitches that I'm required to throw and that might trigger something," Johnson said.

One of the things Johnson has to battle from a mental standpoint is the thought in the back of his head that one pitch could re-injure his back.

"I think when you're coming off an injury you're still kind of a little leery about going all out," Johnson said. "So I think that will be a progressional thing as my body gets a little bit stronger with the more innings and pitches that I throw I will progressively get a little more comfortable with where my body is at. But right now I feel like I'm a little bit further along healthwise than I was last year."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.