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Johnson made a brief but promising major-league debut with the Expos in 1988. But by early 1989, wildness had him back in the minors. He was eventually traded to Seattle for All-Star pitcher Mark Langston in a five-man deal. With the Mariners, his talents were evident (especially during a no-hitter against Detroit in 1990) but his chronic control problems continued. Johnson led the league in walks for three consecutive seasons between 1990 and 1992 despite posting consistently high strikeout totals. In 1992, he won the first of four consecutive strikeout titles with 241. The following year, in which he fanned 308 (a Mariner record) was also the first season he walked less than 100 batters, thanks in part to some one-on-one coaching from veteran flamethrower Nolan Ryan.
After finishing 19-8 in 1993, he went on a phenomenal run. Over 81 starts from May 1994 through the 1997 season, the Big Unit posted a 53-9 record, winning 43 of his last 47 decisions. In 1995 he finally won the Cy Young Award after finishing second to Jack McDowell in 1993 and third behind David Cone and Jimmy Key in 1994. The award came at the end of a banner year. Johnson (18-2, 2.48 ERA, 294 strikeouts) narrowly missed becoming the first AL Triple Crown pitcher (leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts) since Detroit's Hal Newhouser accomplished the feat in 1945. His .900 winning percentage broke Ron Guidry's 1978 record, and his strikeouts per nine innings ratio of 12.35 broke the record held by Nolan Ryan. Entering the 1998 season, Johnson's career ratio of 10.38 Ks per nine innings pitched was the best ever, topping Ryan's 9.59.
At the end of the 1995 season, Seattle shared first place in the AL West with California and Johnson was called on to start the one-game playoff against the Angels. He responded with a complete game three-hitter that gave Seattle its first-ever division title and first post-season appearance. In the AL Division Series, Johnson came through again with a brilliant playoff performance against the Yankees in Game Three, holding the Bronx Bombers to two runs in seven innings and helping the Mariners avoid a three-game sweep.
After the Mariners won Game Four 11-8 in the Kingdome, Johnson came out of the bullpen on one day of rest. Despite allowing the go-ahead run to New York in the 11th inning, Johnson received credit for the victory after the Mariners staged a stirring victory in their final at-bat. Advancing to the ALCS, the Mariners fell to the Cleveland Indians, who defeated Johnson 4-0 to clinch the series in Game Six. The loss marked the beginning of a run of hard luck that Johnson would endure in the post-season.
Johnson was sidelined by a season-ending back injury in 1996, but put up Cy Young numbers again in '97. During the season he set an American League record for left-handers by striking out nineteen batters in a 4-1 loss to the Oakland A's on June 24. On August 8th he matched the feat by setting down nineteen Chicago White Sox. Posting a 20-4 record with 291 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.28, Johnson finished second in the Cy Young balloting to Toronto's Roger Clemens.
The Mariners won their second AL West title, but Johnson was unable to lead them out of the first round of the playoffs. He lost twice to the Orioles and their ace right-hander Mike Mussina. Earlier that year Mussina had snapped a 16-game winning streak by Johnson which had stretched over parts of three seasons, and ended one short of tying the AL record.
The rangy southpaw has made a living making left-handed hitters look foolish. In 1990, he became the first portsider ever to strike out Wade Boggs three times in a game. Over his career (through 1997) he held southpaw batters to a miserable .197 average and ten home runs, two coming from notorious slugger Mo Vaughn. Not surprisingly, many lefties preferred to take their off-days with the Big Unit on the mound. Notable absentees on Johnson's day in the rotation have included heavy-hitting Rafael Palmeiro, 1997 NL MVP Larry Walker, and the reputable Tony Gwynn.
Their fear of Johnson most likely comes from the combination of his ability to throw biting fastballs over the inside part of the plate, and his tendency to throw them at a batter's head. In the '93 All-Star Game, Johnson brushed Philadelphia's John Kruk off the plate with a ball that might have been a strike to a giraffe. Kruk proceeded to strike out in a fairly embarrassing manner. A similar pitch thrown a few feet above Colorado's Larry Walker in an All-Star appearance four years later caused Walker to jokingly turn his batting helmet around and switch to the other side of the plate.
Other players haven't been as amused. Johnson led the majors in hit batsmen for two consecutive seasons, and seemed to use his situational wildness to frighten batters into submission. When Cleveland center fielder Kenny Lofton took offense in early 1998 at a high, inside slider, Johnson chucked another one to the same spot. Lofton later told reporters that he believed Johnson had been throwing at him for years. But Johnson, who never hit Lofton in his career, contended that if he had been throwing at him, he would have hit him. "I could hit someone across the other dugout if I wanted to," he said. "And I can surely hit someone 60 feet six inches away, someone six feet tall and 185 pounds and not moving."
Johnson's 1998 season was a tale of two cities. In Seattle, he sulked through the first half of the year after the Mariners told him they couldn't afford to re-sign him. Just 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in late July, Johnson was rejuvenated by a trade-deadline deal to Houston. After joining the Astros, the Big Unit reeled off 10 wins in 11 starts, posting a 1.28 ERA along with four shutouts. His post-season woes continued, however, as he was outpitched by Padres ace Kevin Brown in a 2-1 loss to San Diego in Game One of the NLDS and suffered a second defeat to Sterling Hitchcock in the series' decisive Game Four.
One of the most coveted players in the free-agent market that offseason, Johnson eventually accepted a four-year $53 million deal from the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his first season with the club, Johnson proved a sound investment, leading the second-year franchise to the NL West title while joining Gaylord Perry and Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers to win Cy Young awards in both leagues. A stunning mid-season lack of run support limited him to a 17-9 record. The Diamondbacks were shut out in four consecutive starts by Johnson, including a pair of 1-0 defeats to Jose Jimenez of the Cardinals -- one of which was a no-hitter. Yet Johnson led the NL with a 2.48 ERA and led both leagues with 364 strikeouts, 12 complete games and 271 2/3 innings pitched.
Once again, though the playoffs failed to bring out the best in Johnson. After absorbing a Game One loss to the New York Mets in the NLDS, he had tied a major league record with six consecutive post-season losses.
After tying a modern record with six victories in April 2000, Johnson coasted to yet another dominating season. Leading the league in strikeouts (347) and winning percentage, Johnson easily bagged his third Cy Young Award, becoming the third National League pitcher to win the trophy in consecutive seasons. However, his Diamondbacks failed to reach the postseason, despite adding fellow fastballer Curt Schilling in July. Johnson recorded his 3000th strikeout on September 10, 2000, as he whiffed Florida Marlins' third baseman Mike Lowell.
Johnson began the next season with a bang once again, recording 20 strikeouts in nine innings against the Cincinnati Reds on May 8, 2001. But because Johnson, who left the game after the ninth with the score still tied, was technically pitching in an extra-inning affair, it was initially ruled that the Unit couldn't share the record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Less than a month later, however, Major League Baseball reversed the ruling and allowed Johnson's game to enter the record book, sharing the honor with Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood.
The year for records wasn't quite over for Johnson. On July 19, 2001, the lanky lefty set another when the previous night's game against the San Diego Padres was delayed by two electrical explosions that knocked out a light tower in Qualcomm Stadium. When the game resumed the following day, Johnson replaced original starter Schilling in the top of the third, and pitched the next seven innings, striking out 16 Pods. In the process he set a new record for strikeouts in a relief appearance, set 88 years previously by Walter Johnson, who whiffed 15 in 11 1/3 frames on July 25, 1913.
The performance was archetypal Big Unit dominance that year. He went on to win 20 games for the second time in his career while striking out over 300 hitters for the fourth consecutive year. His seven-inning, one-run victory over the Colorado Rockies on October 2, 2001 was his 200th career win. (JB/HC/AG)