Unit comes up big
Johnson raises intensity, ends seven-game postseason skid
By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated
PHOENIX -- As he showed against the Cardinals in the Division Series, Curt Schilling knows a thing or two about pitching at this time of year.
So after Randy Johnson, the Diamondbacks' other ace, blew away the Braves with a three-hit shutout in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Schilling was asked if he thought the Big Unit was bothered by the unenviable streak he had brought into the game: seven consecutive postseason losses.
"We've talked about it, about how he was always asked about it, but I can tell you that nobody in here sat back this morning and said, 'Oh no, Randy's pitching today,'" Schilling said. "This is a different time of year. Pitching well is not good enough in the postseason. Some times you have to pitch great."
After pitching well so often in the postseason -- he allowed three earned runs or fewer in five of his seven losses -- Johnson finally was great on Tuesday.
He walked but one, and at one point he retired 20 consecutive hitters. The Braves didn't have a clean hit until Julio Franco lined a single into left field in the ninth.
The Unit had 11 strikeouts, and according to the radar gun readings posted on the scoreboard his fastball hit 98 mph in the ninth inning, but he executed a dominating performance without looking like his usual fire-breathing self on the mound.
No fist-pumps after key strikeouts. None of his trademark exultant screaming as he walked off the mound after each inning.
Johnson's relatively serene exterior belied the whirring inside his head.
Standing in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse with his left shoulder encased in ice 30 minutes after the game, Johnson acknowledged that he was exhausted -- not from his 125-pitch effort, but from the intense concentration his outing required.
"I have a little bit of a headache right now because I'm so mentally drained," Johnson said.
Johnson knew he had pitched well in past playoff starts, and he knew with a little help from his teammates a few of those seven losses might have been wins. (His teams scored a total of 11 runs for him in those seven losses.)
But he was clearly determined not to let one hitter get away from him in Game 1, not to let his concentration lapse for a pitch, in an attempt to end his losing streak and get what he called "King Kong" off his back.
"At times Randy will try to overpower the ball and that's when his mechanics fall apart a bit," Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. "Today he was just in a real nice rhythm, he wasn't trying to muscle his pitches. And he was hitting his spots consistently."
Maybe it was watching Schilling's Division Series outings. Maybe it was the constant questions from reporters. Whatever the reason Johnson, never known for his jovial spirit or lack of intensity on the days he starts, seemingly raised his concentration and focus beyond their normally lofty levels.
The result was a multi-tiered victory: The end of his losing streak, a reshaping of his reputation for postseason failures, and a 1-0 lead in the series for the Diamondbacks.