Johnson is never more imposing than when seen from the lefthanded batter's box. He-slings the ball with a three-quarters delivery at the end of a 38-inch arm. That means the baseball leaves his hand from a point about three feet behind a batter's back—yet it often winds up on the outside corner of the plate. As the ball cuts across the hitter's field of vision, the batter must decide in the blink of an eye whether the pitch is an 88-mph slider that will snap down and away, a 91-mph two-seam fastball that will sink or a 99-mph fastball that just might have slipped out of Johnson's hand.
"When a pitcher has one slip, it's going to sail up on the side of his pitching hand—right at your head," says Anaheim Angels lefthanded hitter Jim Edmonds. "What makes Johnson even tougher is that he's a little bit wild. There's nobody like him. On the one hand, I hope I do get in the lineup against him. On the other hand, I hope I don't. You know what I mean?"
Says another American League left-handed batter, "I believe Randy doesn't throw as hard to lefthanders because he's afraid of what might happen if a ball gets away from him."
Through Sunday, of the 6,919 batters Johnson had faced in his 10-year career, only 699 had been lefthanders, and they had hit .197 against him. Lefthanded batters aside, Johnson may represent more of a danger to himself than to hitters. His physiology is ill-suited to the violence of throwing a ball so hard and so often. For one, he has a long spine. For another, "he doesn't have a lot of thigh mass and buttocks mass, so he may have to use his spine and trunk more than most pitchers to generate velocity on the ball," says Stanley Herring, a physiatrist who is part of Johnson's cadre of trainers and doctors. "Fifty percent of Randy's velocity comes from his spine and trunk."
Last season the lowest lumbar disk in Johnson's back gave out from all the torque. Disk matter oozed like jelly from a doughnut. He underwent surgery on Sept. 12, two days after his 33rd birthday, to have the matter removed. "I felt like I was training for the Olympics." Johnson says of the rigorous off-season program he went through to rehabilitate his back. "I'm still not out of the woods yet, and I know I won't be until I have a whole year under my belt."
This is what the highlight reels didn't show you from Johnson's 19-strikeout game: Between innings he watched the game on television while lying on his back on a table in the trainer's room with his feet propped up on a foam block. In Texas during his previous start, he lay on a blanket of towels on the floor of the runway between the dugout and the clubhouse until it was time to pitch again. Johnson cannot stand or sit for a prolonged period, a lesson he painfully learned while watching a three-hour Smashing Pumpkins concert last winter.
In whiffing 19 A's, Johnson threw 142 pitches and came within two strikes of an unprecedented 21 punchouts, getting a pop-up, a strikeout and a fly ball in the ninth inning on two-strike counts. "A special occasion," he said afterward of his high pitch count (his limit: about 130 deliveries). "You never know if you're going to get that kind of opportunity again."
Johnson celebrated by having a doctor examine his back, as he does after every start, to make sure his spine had not rotated out of alignment. Then he Hopped onto his stomach on the trainer's table and was blanketed with 11 ice bags: three on his left arm, two on his back and two on each hamstring and one on each calf "to calm the nerves" that run from the back to the legs. "I was shivering so much I had to go thaw out in the shower," he says. Then he drove home and took one pill that reduces muscle inflammation and another that soothes the nerves in his legs. For an hour he wore an electrified therapeutic rubber sleeve that helps restore proper blood flow up his left arm and through the shoulder.
The next day, despite some pain in his lower back, he began his usual four-day, poststart regimen, which is filled with weight training, rubdowns, icedowns, stationary bike work and specialized exercises. Last Friday, three days after the 19-strikeout performance, he underwent an MRI to get a midseason report card on his back. "It looks very good," Herring said after reading the MRI. "But what you have to remember is, this is management, not a cure."
Johnson travels with more gadgets and props than Gallagher. He packs bungee cords (for resistance training and stretching exercises), a portable electrical stimulation machine, a large green inflatable ball (for doing back exercises), a three-foot fiberglass pole (to be grasped in the middle and wiggled to strengthen the arm muscles) and a foam block that looks like a pitching rubber with a rounded bottom. When he steps on the block with his left foot and raises his other—mimicking the start of his windup—the block rolls, forcing him to maintain his balance by using his abdominal muscles.