Earning his Place in History: Randy Johnson's Last Ten Starts, 1995

The 1995 season is remembered for a few things: the return from the strike, Cal Ripken's consecutive games played streak, and the advent of the wild card, but among other things, the 1995 season will always be famous for the collapse of the California Angels and the surge of the Seattle Mariners.

On August 2, 1995, the AL West looked like this:

TEAM     W       L       PCT    GB
CAL     56      33      .629    --
TEX     45      44      .506    11
SEA     43      46      .483    13
OAK     42      49      .462    15
Seattle proceeded to go on a tear, going 35-20 the rest of the way, and California faded, going 22-33 down the stretch. It all led to Seattle tying California for the division victory, leading to a 1-game do-or-die play-in, perhaps the most exciting scenario you can get in baseball.

En route to a Cy Young season, Randy Johnson was simply overpowering in the 10 starts he made to propel this improbable comeback.

10 GS, 10 QS, 2 CG, 7-0, 74.7 IP, 44 H, 12 R, 4 HR, 24 BB, 99 K.

The Mariners won all ten of Johnson's starts. I thought it would be cool to revisit this stretch where Johnson went so very out of his mind, taking a look at these starts and showing how sometimes, a pitcher can be a true difference-maker. Over these 10 games, Johnson solidified himself as one of his era's most dominant pitchers.

Randy Johnson missed a start on August 6, 1995, due to soreness in his pitching shoulder. On August 7, Johnson went for an MRI... but because of his size, he couldn't actually fit his shoulder into a conventional MRI tunnel. X-rays and a later MRI came back negative, and Johnson was ready to roll after the brief respite.

8/11/95: Johnson faces the Kansas City Royals, scattering 3 hits over 7 innings. He strikes out 11, and the Mariners win 2-1.

On the same day, Bob Sherwin, the columnist for the Seattle Times, ignoring any chance at the division, "... The non-division-winning team with the best record advances into the new playoffs. It's Wild-Card Fever time. Can you say: 'We're No. 4!'"

Afterwards, Johnson said, "It's still a long ways to go, but we're playing for something other than pride. I'm seeing guys with more motivation. That's exciting." Surprise seems to be the dominant emotion from the M's. At 50-47, before the wild card had really taken root, you can imagine a bit of skepticism from players. I love looking at this sort of thing; this day and age, the wild card is immediately on everyone's mind, because it's so entrenched nowadays. Back then, it seems like people were having trouble figuring it out (I later read an article where Buck Showalter adamantly stated his view that the wild card was as good as winning a division, because the goal of the regular season was to make the playoffs. Maybe a bit revolutionary in 1995.)

8/16/95: In his second to worst outing of the bunch, Johnson only goes 6 innings and yields 3 runs at the Metrodome against the Twins, exiting the game down 3-1. Some late offensive heroics by Edgar Martinez, Doug Strange, and Tino Martinez push the M's to a 6-4 victory.

Johnson surrendered 4 home runs across these 10 games, and the first was to Ron Coomer, the 28-year old rookie designated hitter batting 7th. Coomer took a fourth-inning offering from Johnson and pummeled it into the left field seats. The minor league journeyman said afterwards, "He [Johnson] is one of the hardest throwers I've ever seen. I just tried to stay short with my swing."

8/21/95: Johnson dominated Baltimore for 6 shutout innings, striking out 10 O's. He left after 118 pitches, the game a scoreless tie. The M's broke through in the 7th en route to a 6-0 victory.

Chris Hoiles, the designated hitter, said it succinctly, "When he needs it, he's definitely got it. The only thing about Randy Johnson you hope for is that you don't have to face him when you come into town." Hoiles was fanned twice by the overpowering Johnson.

One newspaper article published the day before Johnson's start against the Orioles discussed a practice that doesn't seem to be as prominent these days: spelling good left-handed hitters against really tough lefties. Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles lefty slugger (who was hitting .292/.361/.550 at the time) got the day off, and REALLY wanted the day off apparently, too.

8/26/95: Johnson was a bad host for the Yankees, who came into town right in the thick of the wild card chase, though mired in a long losing streak. He pitched his 15th career shutout and only fanned 7.

Johnson continued to focus on the consolation prize. "It was just nice to win a ballgame and keep pace in the wild card," he said.

On August 26, the standings looked like this:

TEAM     W       L       PCT    GB
CAL     67      46      .593    --
TEX     59      53      .527    7.5
SEA     57      55      .483    9.5
OAK     55      59      .462    12.5
Johnson's silence on the division was justified. They were still two behind the wild-card leading Rangers, and the Angels, who were scuffling a bit, were still 9 up in the loss column.

Johnson skipped another start, at this point, due to recurring inflammation in his shoulder. Johnson had been strictly-pitch limited, interestingly enough, even while reaching 118 pitches against the Twins. But Johnson was normally a 130/140 pitch guy at this point in his life.

9/8/95: Reinvigorated by his time off, Johnson came back and, again, beat up on the Royals. This time, the Royals did manage to score a run, partially due to Johnson's "intimidation" factor. Bob Boone, for better or worse, decided to employ a so-called "small-ball" approach early on because he didn't think that his team could score much against Johnson, and it helped the Royals to scratch out a run. Gary Gaetti singled to lead-off the second, was sacrificed to second, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a groundout by Joe Vitiello.

Even after the solid outing, Johnson was not outwardly pleased. After the game, he said, "My arm's not going to be 100 percent between now and whenever our season is over, so I'll have to rely on good mechanics. I felt like I favored my arm tonight and my mechanics were not good." Even so, he fanned eight and left at 120 pitches, his limit.

It's funny how things have changed. Johnson probably would be FAR more limited under more current techniques.

9/13/95: Only the hapless Twins were able to hit Randy Johnson in his final ten starts. Pat Meares of all people hit a home run against Johnson, and the Twins rode out to an early 4-0 lead, smashing six extra base hits against Johnson in 4 innings. Johnson held his own, though, striking out 13 batters over 7 innings. The high-flying offense came to the rescue, added 7 runs, and Johnson escaped with a no-decision.

9/18/95: Perhaps Andy Benes put it best after this stellar outing from Johnson.

"There's nobody in the National League, nobody in baseball as dominating as Randy. Over there (the NL), they don't have the DH to face, either, a guy usually with 35 homers and 120 RBI. Of course, Greg Maddux has dominated in a different way, an ERA under 2.00 all three years with Atlanta. He drives them mad. Randy just makes them mad."

At a time where league-wide Maddux-worship was perhaps at its most feverish (justifiably, of course), Randy Johnson had seized the title of the game's toughest pitcher.

This time, against Texas, Johnson went 8 innings of 3-hit ball, fanning 10 and picking up his 15th win of the year as the Mariners rolled over the Rangers 8-1. Texas' manager Johnny Oates added, "It was a vintage Randy Johnson game. If you don't get him early, he usually dominates innings three through seven." And all of a sudden, the Mariners were just 2 back of the first place Angels, who had just played 5-15 ball over a 20 game stretch.

TEAM     W       L       PCT    GB
CAL     72      61      .541    --
SEA     70      63      .526    2
TEX     68      65      .483    4
OAK     65      68      .489    7
9/23/95: Johnson's success aside, it was the Angels' poor play that bolstered the M's into first place. The Angels lost their next 4 games and found themselves trailing the surging M's by two games, after Johnson's next gem. Johnson was masterful at the Kingdome in front of 54,000+ fans, going 7 1/3 innings, scattering four measley singles (to Geronimo Berroa, Terry Steinbach, Danny Tartabull, and Mike Bordick), and striking out 15.

The Mariners improved to 74-63 and had opened up a two-game lead over the floundering Angels.

9/28/95: Though not at his most overwhelming, Johnson hung around for 8 1/3 innings, scattering 9 hits (including the 3rd homer of the stretch, this one to Mickey Tettleton) and 2 runs. He struck out 7. Tied 2-2 through 7 innings, Ken Griffey Jr. smacked a grand slam in the top of the 8th to propel the M's to a 6-2 victory.

The next day, though, fans who flipped through the Seattle Times read the following:

"Randy Johnson has pitched all season with a torn left miniscus [sic] in his left knee.

"'It's not something I've wanted to talk about,' the Mariner left-hander said. 'It bothers me at times since it's my push-off leg and it hurts when I drag it. It flared up a bit tonight.'

"He will have surgery to repair the knee after the season."

Johnson managed to put together this stretch with a bum knee, to say the very least, along with his bad shoulder. It's probably not a great idea to praise pitchers playing hurt, mostly b/c they can get a LOT more hurt with cascade injuries and such. But Johnson's 1995 is one of those seasons for the ages, something that we probably won't ever see again.

It seemed like Johnson would be ready to go for Game 1 of the ALDS; his 17th victory kept the M's 2 up with three games to play, and it looked like the team had successfully completed one of the greatest midseason comebacks in the sport's history.

TEAM     W       L       PCT    GB
SEA     77      64      .546    --
CAL     75      66      .532    2
TEX     72      69      .511    5
OAK     67      74      .475    10
California had one last hard-charge in it, though. Still one game behind the wild-card leading Yankees, the Angels were still very much in the race.

A fairly improbable scenario emerged:

  • The Yankees swept the Blue Jays on the road to clinch the wild card.
  • The Angels swept Oakland on the road with an offensive explosion (they outscored the A's 26-11 over 3 games).
  • The Mariners, two up w/ two games to play, lost back-to-back games to the Texas Rangers on the road.
And so, 144 games into the strike-shortened season, the AL West looked like the following:

TEAM     W       L       PCT    GB
SEA     78      66      .542    --
CAL     78      66      .542    --
TEX     74      70      .514    4
OAK     67      77      .465    11
It came down to a one-game playoff.

We talk about how Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa rescued the game in 1998, but there's no doubt that the great pennant race of 1995 helped re-ignite some interest in the sport. With no small part due to the Yankees, the Angels and Mariners' seasons came down to a one-game play-in, with the winner earning the right to travel to New York for Game 1 of the ALDS AGAINST those very Yankees.

So why not bring Randy Johnson back on 3-days rest?

10/2/95: Mariners' OF Vince Coleman said, "The only other pitcher I'd want to be going in a game like this is the Doc Gooden of '85. He was automatic back then." Johnson was at his very best in this game, shutting out the Angels through 8 innings and going the distance in a 9-1 victory for the Mariners. Tony Phillips' 9th-inning homer was all the Angels could muster as Johnson struck out 12 on 3-days rest in the most important game of his life.

This was no laugher, either. The Mariners didn't get on the board until the 5th, and they didn't break it open until a 4-run 7th inning.

Johnson was untouchable this time out. Johnson opted to attack the Angels' hitters early and often. He started out the first eight Angels he faced with strikes, pounded the zone all day, and pitched a fantastic game. His final strikeout ended the night, catching Tim Salmon looking to put it away.

The epilogue to the story would be a look at how dominant Randy was in the playoffs that season. He picked up 2 wins against the Yankees and pitched a couple of critical innings in Game 5 in relief. He was solid, if not spectacular, in both of his starts against the Indians in the ALCS (his playoff stats, for the curious: 4 G, 3 GS, 25.3 IP, 17 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 8 BB, 29 K, 2.49 ERA).

But I think that the whole point of this exercise is that while we watched the Angels collapse, one of the greatest pitching performances in the modern era occurred: Randy Johnson simply took over. He earned his Cy Young that year, earned that division crown for a franchise in danger of being relocated. If ANYONE ever tries to argue that Randy Johnson wasn't a "big game" pitcher, point out his 1995 with Seattle even before getting into the standard "clutch" debate.

And for those who asked what he could do for an encore? Check out his 1998 with Houston.

Special thanks to Retrosheet, which remains the best resource for baseball on the web. Also, thanks to the remodeled Baseball Reference, also fantastic.

Sources (All through Lexis-Nexis Academic)

Bob Finnigan, "M's, Johnson Cut to the Chase -- Ace wins 15th, Pitches Seattle to 2 Behind Angels," Seattle Times, 19 September 1995, C3.

Bob Finnigan, "Mariner Log -- Johnson Needs Offseason Surgery on Ailing Left Knee," Seattle Times, 29 September 1995, D4.

Bob Sherwin, "Ace Gives M's Winning Hand -- Johnson Lifts Seattle Atop Wild-Card Race; M's Win 6th Straight," Seattle Times, 12 August 1995, B1.

Bob Sherwin, "Mariners, Johnson Bounce Back -- Win Over K.C. has Seattle in Tie for Playoff Spot," Seattle Times, 9 September 1995, B1.

Bob Sherwin, "Winning's All that Matters to Buhner," Seattle Times, 24 September 1995, D7.

Glenn Nelson, "Wilson Can't Mask his Joy in 9th -- Jubilant Catcher Sprints Home with Run, then to Celebration," Seattle Times, 3 October 1995, F10.

Jeff Bradley, "Choking on Smoke: Johnson's Three Hitter Gags Yanks," Daily News (New York), 27 August 1995, 50.

Jennifer Frey, "The Big Unit Certainly is the One to Avoid; Mariners' 6-Foot-10 Randy Johnson is the Pitcher that No Batter Wants to Face," Washington Post, 21 August 1995, D01.

Jerry Crasnik, "Big Unit Carries Big Shoulders," Denver Post, 7 August 1995, D-07.

Jim Souhan, "Mariners' Johnson Outduels Twins' Bullpen," Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), 17 August 1995, 1C.

Mark Maske, "Mariners' Big Inning Beats O's; Seattle Gets 5 in 7th, Cruises to 6-0 Win," Washington Post, 22 August 1995, E01.

Steve Kelley, "Johnson's Defining Moment in Playoff," Seattle Times, 2 October 1995, D1.

(Note: for the bibliographic format, I used a standard footnote style, b/c most of the time, individual newspaper articles aren't cited in bibliographies.)
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