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On brink of 300, Big Unit looks back

On brink of 300, Big Unit looks back

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As he approaches his greatest individual achievement two decades in the making, Randy Johnson remains a unique force in baseball.

Johnson, who will attempt to notch his 299th career win Wednesday night against the Atlanta Braves, could be the last of a special breed of pitchers who were able to dominate the game for an extended period and achieve both team and personal baseball records that will rank him as one of the great pitchers of all time.

At age 45, when most players are long retired, Johnson is still plying his craft for the Giants and relishing the challenge of getting batters out as, in baseball terms, an old man playing a young man's game.

From his younger days until now, the 6-foot-10 Johnson has been a pitcher who demanded attention, first with velocity and now with tenacity.

"Back then I was the minority," said Johnson, who dominated the game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning the Cy Young Award in 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. "Maybe a handful of people threw consistently 95, 98 [miles per hour] for seven or eight innings long. Now I throw 90 to 93 [mph] and I know how to pitch, I have for a long time -- I knew how to pitch when I threw 98 [mph], that's why I was so successful at it.

"It took me a long time to learn that, but obviously I had good days and bad days like everybody else. Now throwing 93 [mph], I'm [in] the majority once again, because the majority of Major Leaguers throw that. It's as much as a challenge now than it ever has been just because of my age and how I recover between starts. I have good days and I have bad days."

But over his 21-year career there have been a lot more good days, and Johnson is close to reaching a rare milestone among pitchers, the coveted 300 career victories.

"It means a great deal," Johnson said. "It means I've been around for a while, it means I've been healthy for a great deal of my career, and when I wasn't I got healthy pretty quickly and got back out there. It also means that I was durable and won over a long period of time. I think in order to win 300 games you have to win and win consistently, and I feel that I've done that with the help of my teammates."

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, a rival now but his manager with the Yankees in 2005 and 2006, says you need more than just help from your friends.

"You've got to be lucky," said Torre. "Very few people pitch nine innings anymore and you gotta make sure those people are coming in to save this game for you and have the ability to do that. It's tougher to find players that will be able to stay in long enough to do that. I certainly hope Randy will celebrate when he finally does make it."

For the Big Unit, the big number is part of a long journey through various teams and cities, starting with the Expos through Seattle's first heydays and on to Houston, Arizona twice, the Yankees and now the Giants.

"Everywhere I went was pivotal," recalls Johnson. "Montreal was the team that drafted me out of college. They took the initiative to see something, they thought I was Major League caliber stuff. It was a long process to finally get there with that organization, but they took the chance.

"Then getting traded to Seattle. They gave me the opportunity to pitch every fifth day regardless of how I did and they did that for nine years and it panned out pretty well for both of us. Then I got traded to Houston. That was the best two months of my career, arguably. I've never matched that two months, anywhere I've been since that. Then I became a free agent and went to Arizona, won a championship and did some nice individual things."

Johnson sounds modest about his accomplishments in his first tour with the D-backs, but the numbers were staggering. Johnson averaged 350 strikeouts and 20 wins in the four consecutive years he won the NL Cy Young Award, with 2002 being his best statistical season going 24-5 with a 2.32 ERA. But 2001 was the year that Johnson and Curt Schilling cemented their names in baseball history and helped the then-4-year-old franchise win its first World Championship.

"I don't know if anyone has ever experienced anything like that before, maybe Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale," said Bob Brenly, who managed the 2001 team. "They were two tremendously competitive pitchers who had great stuff. They were on top of their game physically and mentally. They also pitched with a really good team behind them. I think it was the perfect storm for me as the manager to have all those things working. I know for sure two days a week I was the smartest manager in the National League."

Arizona faced a determined Yankees team that, along with the rest of the country, had been traumatized by the events of 9/11 just a month earlier. After Johnson and Schilling won the first two games in Arizona, the Yankees staged a remarkable comeback in New York, winning all three games -- the last two in dramatic fashion. So Johnson and his team had their backs against the wall back in Arizona for Game 6, but the Big Unit dominated on the mound -- winning 15-2. The next day Johnson came on relief in Game 7 to help Arizona come from behind to beat New York, 3-2, to win the series. He, along with Schilling, were named co-World Series MVPs.

"Magical things happened," reminisced Johnson. "It went from one emotion to the other. You're thinking one moment you might lose and what a great year it was, and then all of a sudden you're out dogpiling on the center of the field and you're world champs. Considering everything that happened that year with the country, it was pretty exciting for the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise."

Said Brenly: "Randy was a big part of that. He was a guy who had won just about every individual award you could have won as a pitcher, but he was really, really hungry to hold up that World Series trophy. I think more than the physical ability it was that mental toughness and the desire to win the championship that made Randy and that team great."

So now Johnson, who is a student of the game and its history, is about to join an exclusive fraternity.

"Considering there are not that many people -- 24, 25 players in the history of the game -- that have won 300 games, it's not a goal that I set out to do," said Johnson. "I never really considered or even thought I'd come close to it."

But now baseball history is upon Johnson yet again and if he achieves the magic number of 300 career victories, it may be a long time before another pitcher passes that way again.

Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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