Big Unit won't be ready for opener

Big Unit won't be ready for opener

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson made continued progress in his third Cactus League start on Friday, and manager Bob Melvin brought clarity to the way the Diamondbacks rotation will look on Opening Day, but for better or worse, the two lines of Johnson's progression and the rotation's solidification may not immediately intersect.

One thing has been certain all along: Brandon Webb will start on Opening Day in Cincinnati. But the rest of the spring rotation has been rolling with Johnson sandwiched between Webb and Dan Haren, followed by Doug Davis and Micah Owings.

"I think there's a good chance it's Danny Haren on Day 2," Melvin said before Johnson's start against the Dodgers on Friday. "And probably Doug on Day 3. And then we'll see where we go from there."

Johnson was targeted for four innings or 60 pitches on Friday, and he hit 63 pitches at 3 2/3 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits and two walks. He'll shoot for five innings and 75-80 pitches in his final Cactus League start against the Rockies on Wednesday, and both Melvin and Johnson conceded that The Big Unit would still be shy of an ideal jumping off point for the start of the season.

"Right now I've got eight innings in," Johnson said after the game. "I think it's safe to say that if I was to go five innings against Colorado, that would give me 13 innings, and that's still not quite enough."

Melvin echoed the southpaw's sentiments, noting that even if all the myriad variables at play in Johnson's preparation fell perfectly into place, it "could be [enough], but he's probably at least one start behind everybody right now."

If the D-backs start with Webb, Haren, and Davis in the first three slots of the rotation, and if Johnson needs at least one more start after Wednesday before joining the rotation for the regular season, Melvin is left to decide where to slot Micah Owings, who is struggling with command and an 11.32 ERA in four starts and 10 1/3 innings. He revealed Friday that the most likely candidate to take an open spot in the rotation would be Edgar Gonzalez, who is 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in three starts and one relief appearance comprising 11 innings on the mound.

"Absolutely, no question," Melvin said of Gonzalez's front-runner status. "He's the one guy who can pitch [as a starter] and come out of the bullpen and do it. His outings have been basically flawless here in Spring Training. We have a lot of confidence in Edgar. That role that he serves is not an easy role to pitch from. He's been able to find that niche where he can do it."

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If Johnson pitches on Wednesday in the Cactus League and goes on the DL to start the season, his earliest eligible return date would be April 11, the second time the fifth-starter spot would come up in the rotation. But with Gonzalez offering solid insurance, there is no sense of urgency from Johnson or the coaching staff.

"I wouldn't want to rush anything," Johnson said. "I haven't been to five innings yet. Last year the one thing that was gratifying was that when I was pitching healthy I at least went six innings. I'd like to get to that point right now in Spring Training and go five, six innings. If that means I have to make my Colorado start and one or two more, I don't know, but I need to sit down with [the coaching staff] and see what their plans are and go from there."

That patience may be a change of pace for Johnson, who has taken a bulldog mentality to the mound in past years, including his last season with the Yankees, when he made 33 starts, threw 205 innings, and won 17 games but posted a 5.00 ERA, his highest since pitching seven games for Montreal in 1989.

"He's pretty honest and pretty open, but you sort of knew that he'd been dealing with something on a regular basis," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said Friday, recalling his days managing the Big Unit in New York. "Having been around baseball my whole life, and watching Bob Gibson pitch and knowing that he'd jump on the [trainer's] table every two or three days to get his knee drained -- this is what the great ones do. They deal with what they have to deal with until it's impossible to do it."

By all accounts, Johnson is dealing with his health from a rational and productive perspective as he prepares for the 2008 season. He's testing the waters slowly and keeping a sharp focus on the immediate task as he pushes into what he calls "uncharted territory" with each extended start.

At some point over the next 10 days, Melvin and Johnson will have to look a little further into the future and settle on a plan to start the season. Though they have yet to sit down and hash it out together, it's clear that they're on the same page, with Melvin disinclined to ask for anything less than what The Big Unit is determined to offer: his best.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.