Big Unit ready for Big Apple showdown
With series knotted, lefty to start Game 3 against Angels
NEW YORK -- The third game of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and Angels is to be played at night Friday, eliminating Yogi Berra's famous, "It gets late early here" Yankee Stadium-in-October sun, but not the longest shadow in postseason history. Weather permitting -- and that appeared to be an issue late Thursday -- Randy Johnson is to make his first postseason start as a Yankee and, if all goes according to plan, offer additional proof that size matters.
If baseball is a game of inches, then Game 3 will be one of 82 inches when Johnson, all 6-foot-10 of him, confronts the Angels in a game that seemingly was made for what he can provide. Big game, big setting, big city, Big Unit. Big impact. This is living large.
A Yankees victory Friday creates a chance for them to avoid not only a fifth game but also a third coast-to-coast flight in eight days. If the Angels can be Unit-ed, i.e., buried by fastballs and sliders, the Yankees will have a chance to gain a measure of rest before playing the Sox (Red or White).
But third things first: Game 3 looms and, with it, a chance for Johnson to add to his legacy. Built at least partially at the Yankees' expense, that legacy includes a rather aberrational 2-7 career record in Division Series play. Hard to figure for the pitcher who won his three decisions against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, who has a 2-1 record in four LCS starts and whose postseason ERA -- with his Division Series work excluded -- is 1.48.
"If you look back at some of the games I've pitched [in the Division Series], a game is a game." Johnson said Thursday. "If you lose, 1-0, then you just didn't pitch well enough. I pitched some quality ballgames, two of them with Houston -- we lost both of those games. And then when I was with the Diamondbacks, the first year in '99, I threw 270 innings, so I was a little tired at the end of the year. The Mets beat me.
"There's no rhyme or reason. This year is a different year, and I feel like there's a lot of reserved energy in my tank. I didn't throw nearly as many innings as I probably have in the past, about 225 [actually 225 2/3] -- still a lot, but I'm ready to go. There's no rhyme or reason for the Division Series record, but we'll get beyond that, and then I'm in waters that I'm extremely comfortable with."
Johnson spoke in the bowels of Yankee Stadium on an otherwise uneventful afternoon. Only he had come to the ballpark. His teammates had flown overnight and needed to rest more than to break a sweat. They stayed home with time to ponder their situation.
"We have Randy Johnson on the mound on Friday. That's the way we have to look at it," Jorge Posada said before leaving Anaheim.
"We're always confident when he pitches. He's been pitching well for us as of late," Derek Jeter said.
After two games -- one victory for each team, the Yankees' situation is just that, a situation. It is the presence of Johnson that makes the Angels' situation look more like a predicament. They face two games in an environment that they say doesn't bother them. And more than any other team, the Angels like to say they're immune to the ghosts that Jeter enlists every so often. But Johnson changes the equation no matter what other factors are in it.
"Randy Johnson is Randy Johnson," Jeter said.
The Yankees hope so, the Angels hope not.
More than any player in the series, Johnson can dominant and change its course -- almost singlehandedly. The Angels can ignore and/or deny everything else, but they still have to find a way to beat the pitcher who has enjoyed a 2 1/2-month renaissance and who enters his 15th postseason start confident and strong.
"Any professional athlete, when you go out there and you're doing the things that you've become accustomed to doing, then you've got a comfort level," Johnson said. "When you're not, you're probably frustrated and you're wondering why, and you're answering questions. I'm beyond that point now.
"Obviously I wasn't happy with the up and downs that I had [early in the season], but, you know, I think any pitcher out there that didn't win 17 games would love to have 17 wins this year. It's funny that we say I had an off year, and still won 17 games. So my level of confidence is up, but, you know, it only goes as far as how I'm pitching. I mean, I understand that I am here to get this team over the top, and with that, there's no making mistakes. I made a few during the regular season, and unfortunately there's no room to make a lot of mistakes during [the postseason]."
With a narrower margin for error, there seemingly would be more pressure.
But Johnson said: "Nothing is being asked of me that hasn't been asked of me before, so that's why I didn't get wrapped up in the rivalry. You know, every time I go out and pitch, it's a rivalry with that team because they want to beat me, and I want to beat them.
"My career will be over soon enough and I want to accumulate a lot in this game, and you only have an opportunity [to pitch] once every five days. They don't come along very often when you're losing ballgames, so that's why I have never cheated myself when I've gone out there to pitch, whether it's the regular season or postseason. I've pitched poorly in both situations, but I've pitched good in both situations."
The Yankees need the latter.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.